In the title role in Roschdy Zem’s bittersweet historical drama Chocolat, Omar Sy (Intouchables, Samba) finds a marvelous showcase for a full range of his talents and effortless charisma. James Thierrée – who, with age, looks more and more like his grandfather Charlie Chaplin – is also superb as Footit, the clown who, in partnership with Chocolat, revolutionized what a circus act could do. The duo enjoyed unprecedented fame at the turn of the previous century.

Poster for the comic drama ChocolatOf his four films, this is director Roschdy Zem’s most ambitious effort to date, a true story in which white society only permits a non-white man to get so far before feeling the brunt of prejudice and double standards. There’s subtext galore about racial discrimination but the film also works well as a tale of a showbiz rise and fall.

A Cuban who was sold and brought to Bilbão as an 8-year-old boy, we first meet the future Chocolat – real name Rafael Padilla – in 1897 in the north of France playing a teeth-baring cannibal in the ramshackle circus run by Monsieur and Madame Delveaux. He doesn’t mind the easy work and enjoys a secret romance with cute young Camille (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Footit, an experienced clown, sees Rafael in the circus ring and, inspired by the black man’s supple physicality, proposes that they do an act together. Footit is a stern taskmaster devoted to his craft and Rafael is a devil-may-care fellow only too happy to coast on his natural gifts. There’s comic chemistry in their sketches, which incorporate plenty of the white guy kicking the black guy, and lots of falling down.

When Parisian circus impresario Oller (Oliver Gourmet) offers them a contract in his 1500-seat theatre in the capital, the duo is catapulted from the scruffy bigtop to the genuine big time. Footit and Chocolat are a sensation.

Chocolat goes in for tailored suits and a motorcar in addition to spending a fortune gambling. But when he’s arrested as an illegal alien, beaten by police and thrown into a medieval prison, his cell mate – an intellectual from Haiti  – raises Chocolat’s political conscience. After his release, Chocolat likes getting kicked less and less and aspires to conquer the legitimate stage.

Sy, who ages convincingly over a 20-year period, is energetic and appealing but also grave and troubled when required. The mutually beneficial but mostly unequal relationship between Footit and Chocolat pops off the screen in the circus numbers designed by Thierrée, and in the two characters’ frequently tense offstage exchanges.

With the help of evocative production design and Paris locations, Zem and his cast have brought back to life an entertainment pioneer who was tragically forgotten by the time he died in 1917.

– Lisa Nesselson, ScreenDaily

Roschdy Zem raconte le destin tragique du clown Chocolat, premier artiste noir à s’être produit sur une scène française à l’orée du XXème siècle. Un grand et beau rôle pour Omar Sy, qui réalise une superbe performance.

James Thierrée and Omar Sy in ChocolatDans le Paris de la Belle Époque, un duo de clowns fait sensation. Footit, un petit Blanc, tyrannise de mille manières Chocolat, un grand Noir. Qui est donc cet Auguste souffre-douleur qui fait rire, tout autant qu’il l’effraie, le public de la France coloniale ? Un certain Rafael Padilla, fils d’esclaves africains, qui jouait les bêtes de foire dans un cirque de province, avant que Footit ne lui propose de partir à la conquête de la capitale, en formant un duo inédit. Une rencontre professionnelle qui va chambouler la vie de Rafael et provoquer sa chute…

Derrière la caméra pour la quatrième fois, après Mauvaise foi et Omar m’a tuer, Roschdy Zem nous passionne en nous contant la destinée tragique de cet homme. Un héros dont il ne brosse pas pour autant un portrait candide. Vaniteux et joueur, ce Chocolat n’est pas sans défauts et la célébrité va les exacerber. C’est notamment cette complexité très humaine du personnage, qu’Omar Sy endosse avec brio, qui touche au cœur. Sans oublier la relation d’amitié entretenue avec Footit (formidable James Thierrée, petit-fils de Charlie Chaplin), qui donne des scènes très émouvantes et aborde, en creux, la question du racisme. Car le rapport de domination que les deux amis jouent chaque soir sur scène finit par avoir raison de cette belle alchimie artistique, à mesure que Chocolat prend conscience de sa condition de « gentil nègre ».

Visuellement très beau, émouvant et très juste dans son propos, ce nouveau film de Roschdy Zem est un spectacle généreux et populaire.

– J. Torres, Télé 2 Semaines

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