In “Living in Bondage: Breaking Free” a terrible beauty is born – Toni Kan

There are three stand-out scenes in the Ramsey Nouah directed, Steve Gukas produced, Nicole Asinugo and CJ Obasi scripted movie, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free

The first happens in the opening minutes of the brilliant film while the second happens in a church when the two arch enemies confront each other.

The second is not original as is much of the plot of this film and you can tell if you are familiar with the Al Pacino and Keanu Reeve’s 1997 film, The Devil’s Advocate or the Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke 1987 psychological thriller, Angel Heart which both riff on ambition and devilish seduction.

For the third scene, you have to buy a ticket or wait until Living in Bondage: Breaking Free comes to Netflix.

But no matter the references, this film still packs a punch!

First off, this movie will make a movie star out of the quirkily named Swanky JKA who plays Nnamdi Nworie (Okeke). When we first meet him, he appears on-screen looking like a poor man’s Ebuka but by movies end, he has become a swaggalicious Lagos big boy. He is funny, self-deprecating and brilliant, segueing seamlessly between serious and comical and all the while projecting acting chops that belie his Nollywood pedigree. And oh watch this movie and you will fall in love with the poetry that is the Igbo language.

But star on the ascent or not, the man who waltzes through the film as if he is a ballerina on a Parisian stage is Ramsey Nouah. Nollywood fell in love with him in the 90s and a new band of fans are about to fall head-over-heels in love with Mr. Nouah who makes his directorial debut with this movie and what a job he does of it.

Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, Ramsey Nouah (Richard Williams) does the dirty on all the other actors. He is fine. Well spruced up. And does he have all the best lines or what? His lines drip with humour and insouciance. There is an almost sexy restlessness in his character’s ability to not sweat the small stuff.

“Did you hear about Obinna?” Nnamdi asks

“These things happen,” he answers while pouring drinks as if the death by suicide of a close associate is an everyday occurrence. Never has a Nigerian actor portrayed a wealthy character with such panache except for him constantly having to bite open his cigars instead of using a cigar cutter.

When Nnamdi Nworie’s whining about voodoo and what not begins to grate, Richard snaps at him:

“Stop being so dramatic Nnamdi. What do you take this for, Nollywood? That’s so old school.”

Here the script writer in speaking through this character is exhibiting a clever streak. He is referencing Nollywood as an industry, taking a dig at Nollywood’s love for melodrama and then referencing the fact that this is a sequel of sorts all in one breath.

And at some point, just before he tells Nnamdi that he will make him “an offer he can’t refuse,” Richard Williams actually acknowledges that the words he has uttered are from The Godfather. The meta-textuality and inter-textuality are exciting and mark CJ Obasi and his partner as screenwriters of the smarter viewer.

When Nnamdi meets his love interest, Kelly (Munachi Abi) she says to him “I didn’t take you for a G-Wagon kind of guy

“What kind of guy did you take me for?” Nnamdi asks.

“Camry,” she says without missing a bit.

It is this interplay of the comical and the serious, the quotidian and the mysterious that lend the movie its unique specific gravity.

But despite the levity and banter, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free is a difficult movie to watch. There is blood on and off screen and the subject matter is one that is too painfully familiar (Otokoto anyone) but Ramsey Nouah’s light touch and brilliant screenplay manage to find a middle ground where the movie takes off and soars without being mired in melodrama.

The story is a simple and well told one. A young man after a series of disappointments is seduced by the devil who promises him riches and opulence and influence and power in exchange for something he is not fully aware of and which is why Nnamdi says to Richard Williams – “You did not explain this well to me.”

The Mephistophelian Williams is as sly as a snake oil salesman. He is slick and suave and seductive and quickly has Nnamdi licking his fingers in gratitude.

“You lapped it all up like a hungry dog,” Richard Williams tells him.

But it is the nature of the devil to come bearing gifts and the nature of desperate men to fall because as Richard Williams says “The big man is big on promises.”

For Eve it was the apple in the garden of Eden but for Nnamdi it is an escape from poverty, material success as a thriving entrepreneur and car freak.

“Do you want this life?” Richard Williams asks Nnamdi while ostensibly on a business trip to Durban.

“I want this life,” Nnamdi answers.

“Then I can give it to you,” snarls Richard Williams. “Success. Wealth. Power. But when you get, you give. It is the order of things.”

But what is never explicitly made clear is the manner of what you have to give.

By this time Nnamdi has gone so far from poverty he does not want to contemplate a life of want but immediately the deed is done, in a striking biblical allusion, Nnamdi, discovers like Adam and Eve did in the garden, that he is naked, his soul exposed to the devil.

But it is not all judeo-Christian allusions. Nnamdi’s account winning presentation where he compares rail lines to the lines on his palm can be taken as a literal comment on the Igbo belief in akalaka, or destiny which must be why it resonates immediately with Ramsey Nouah’s  character, Richard Williams. But on a metaphorical level we can also see why it resonates with Williams because the palm is important for the initiation rite.

There are cameos by older Nollywood actors who provide the context for situating Ramsey Nouah’s movie in the realm of the sequel and there are quite a few pleasant surprise appearances.

Now to my pet peeves.

The blogger Uzoma Adibe played by (David) is a horrible choice. He makes a very poor attempt at method acting, in fact his acting is a poor impression of Vincent D’Onofrio character, Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He is presented as an intelligent blogger with a singular mission – to destroy Richard Williams and The Six. But what he manages to destroy is his character who is so busy trying to develop an acting style that he forgets to act.

Obinna jumps from an 18th floor balcony but when Nnamdi looks down he can see him clearly and we even heard the dull thud of his body hitting the pavement.

Uzoma who is portrayed as smart and intelligent has a problem with grammar and his tenses. In his blog he writes “Is there an end to these [sic] blood thirst?”

When Nnamdi tells his friend Kelly that a clown called Andy Okeke came to his office and introduced himself as Nnamdi’s father, she is a tad bit too quick in saying “If it is the same Andy Okeke who preaches on tv, then he is not a fraud.”

Peeves aside, Living in Bondage (Breaking Free) is an exciting fare, a cautionary tale and a refreshing take on Nollywood. In referencing Kenneth Nnebue’s Livng in Bondage, it pays homage to the early Nollywood while focusing on the Nollywood of tomorrow and we can infer this from the dialogue which are most times, double entendres.

“I don’t know how to repay you,” Nnamdi says to Richard Williams to which he replies.

“Soon enough, Nnamdi. Soon enough.”

If today is a day of reckoning for New Nollywood, there is still time to make full recompense but this is a sure footed beginning.

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