ANÍKÚLÁPÓ (2022): A Not-So-Tragic Tragedy

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Anikulapo is the 13th feature film from Kunle Afolayan. After previously exploring a variety of stories and concepts, such as three Nigerian women who are diagnosed with cancer and have to deal with all the challenges this brings (2019’s Diamonds in the Sky), a psychological thriller involving a mystical structure found in a shrine (2009’s The Figurine) and a comedy-drama film about a businessman and a fashion designer who accidentally switch phones in an airport, the director has turned his gaze to historical epics. Due to their high production budget which is used to put together extravagant settings, lavish costumes and ensemble casts, historical epics tend to be not only massive crowd pleasers but also projects that receive a lot of critical and industry acclaim.

Consider the following films: Braveheart (1995), Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World (2003), Ben-Hur (1959), Gladiator (2000), and the Northman (2022) directed by Robert Eggers; three of them are Best Picture winners while one of them has two Oscars and two BAFTAs. I say all of this to establish that it is perfectly fine if any readers liked Anikulapo. As a matter of fact, my intent here is not to publish a final word on the matter but begin a conversation— this is the job of a critic after all.  Feel free to drop lengthy epistles in the comments. I promise to read every single one.

Anikulapo has more elements which drag it down and prevent it from being truly epic, than it does elements which lift it up. I’ll be examining how the film doesn’t work from a storytelling perspective.

A good number of Kunle Afolayan’s films always leave me feeling unsatisfied, as if he fails, more often than not, to explore major facets of the ideas he introduced. There’s this sense of fulfillment one gets from watching Inception (2010) or King of Boys (2018) or Goodfellas (1990) or Knives Out (2019) or Isoken (2017). Sometimes, I feel physically sated, the kind experienced after indulging in a big feast, after I watch films like the abovementioned, because they’ve given me a lot to chew on— because there’s decidedly more to the world of the story than meets the eye. Not so with many of Afolayan’s films. The world of the story in Anikulapo seems thin, not necessarily in the production design or general aesthetic which are commendable to say the least (this is where I applaud the effort it took to construct the locations used and strive as close to realism as possible), but in its lore and in way the characters interact with these elements. These things might have been negligible if the plot had kept things going, but the whole thing drags. The first forty-five minutes are used to set up our major players but they’re not all too interesting. As a drama, the story has more ebbs than flows.

For films that portray descents into madness or ones where the main character’s hubris causes them to fall in the end— tragedies, essentially— it’s best to show the character at the height of their powers and then contrast that with their downfall. For example, in the first half of Goodfellas, Henry Hill is shown living lavishly and dangerously. Scorsese pushes the needle so far in this direction (I mean, the famous Copacabana scene says a lot about the opulence of Henry’s world) so that when things go wrong, there’s a sharp contrast between the two states. Anikulapo’s reign is not adequately established before the film leads us to his reversal of fortune. According to this definition, a tragic hero must have the sympathy of the audience and must, despite their best efforts or intentions, come to ruin because of some tragic flaw in their character. What is Saro’s tragic flaw? Greed? Stubbornness? The company of more than one woman at a time? And at the end, when he comes to ruin, why did I feel more for Arolake, his loyal wife whom he’d betrayed than our supposed tragic hero, who is supposed to be the picture of relatability.

Did he really love Arolake, or has his greed been his major driving force all along? Also, when he comes back from the dead, he doesn’t seem as fazed by it as you expect he would be. He died. What did he see on the other side? What is his emotional reaction to being given a second chance? How does he feel about owing the very breath in his lungs to Arolake’s bravery– or, more accurately, stupidity (anyway, what’s the difference between both when you’re in love)? The audience is not shown. Yet whole minutes are dedicated to them traversing the fine landscapes.

Magic is common to this world, yes. But not resurrection from the dead. The chiefs and priest and king and townspeople in Ojumo are amazed by his wonders because they’ve never seen anything like that before. Yet, the person it happened to is not even fazed by it? Imagine you were dead for five minutes before being resuscitated (through medicine not the Akala bird). How would you react?

The story is supposed to be a tragedy but it fails to commit to this by telling us more about the main character. Like Diana Spencer in Spencer (2020), or Logan (2017), Saro’s moniker is the title of the film, yet, he is mostly passive through its runtime.

This goes back to what I said about Afolayan’s films feeling thin. This character seems like he was conjured solely for the purposes of this film. He didn’t exist before the audience is introduced to him. He will not exist after. He’s not really a character but a set of traits. The young olori on the other hand has a more compelling backstory and a more pressing need to get out of Oyo than Saro. She constantly drives the plot. It is she who brings up running away from the town; saves him from the Akala bird; suggests using the gourd to resurrect the hunter’s child and eventually empties its contents and leaves which results in Saro’s second death. This is Arolake’s story.

According to LitCharts, the downfall of the tragic hero emotionally engages the audience or reader and invokes their pity and fear. Writers therefore use tragic heroes for many of the same reasons they write tragedies—to illustrate a moral conundrum with depth, emotion, and complexity.

There is little complexity in Anikulapo. Little avenues for us to experience catharsis. Women of Owu is a tragedy. The Gods Are Not to Blame, even more so. Anikulapo merely skirts around the idea of one.



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