Chocolat tells the true story of Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat (Omar Sy), the first black circus artist to make it in France as part of a duo clown act with George Footit (James Thierrée). Starting out in the small provincial Cirque Delvaux where the pair meet and become friends, the duo quickly gain notoriety and are asked to join the troupe of the Parisien Nouveau Cirque. There, their success sky rockets and Chocolat quickly becomes well acquainted with the 19th century version of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Life is peachy, that is, until an insidious racist resentment grows against him and he must decide what path to take next.
Director Roschdy Zem brings this little-known story to the silver screen in a way that successfully blurs the line between the personal narrative of the relationship between Footit and Chocolat, and the political conversation about the treatment of black people in the not so distant past. Indeed, the personal truly becomes the political for Chocolat, as Zem slowly brings out the conflict that this character’s political awakening causes for his career, his friendship with George and peace of mind. It is this tale of how their relationship is challenged and strained by the racial politics of the day that makes the film so very interesting.
Visually, there is nothing remarkable about Chocolat’s aesthetic, but as the physical spectacle of the clown sequences between Sy and Thierrée are given centre stage, this does not massively hamper the movie. The two have an excellent on-screen dynamic and Sy shows himself once again to be one of the best actors coming out of France at the moment, while Thierrée gives an impressive performance as the downbeat “white clown”. Clotilde Hesme also features as the middle class white woman Chocolat falls in love with – she is not bad in the part, but suffers from her role being underwritten (this goes for all the female characters, who serve only to support predictable romantic sub-plots), which gives the feature a flimsier feel than it would have had otherwise.
Chocolat is at its best when the personal and political of race relations is being thrown together and examined, and is carried excellently by the two central performances. The narrative falls into predictability at points, but this does not take away from the film being a lively, thought-provoking watch.
Chocolat is released in selected cinemas on 5th November 2016.
Watch the trailer for Chocolat here: