Orisa features rousing acting performances, with a narrative that is at once as thrilling as it is comedic. But with its reluctant adherance to traditional rules, the film undercuts its imagination on the way, delivering morals under-served by the preceding narrative.
By Victory Hayzard Solum
Sometime in the long gone past, the Kabiyesi, Oba Adefolarin, is summoned to a coven of infuriated witches in council. He has previously rejected their more cordial invite to an August event; asserting himself more Orisa – deity – than man, and ridiculing their authority. This cause of their vexation does not come up until much later in the story. Suffice it to say that for his continued insolence, the witches lay a curse on him, and in the real world, the Kabiyesi goes insane. Of course, this is not without further repercussions. The opportunistic raider, Komokomo, descends upon the kingdom with unchecked impudence. On the sidelines stands Balogun, the war general who seems to not care about the invasion of his home community, with people getting carted off like livestock. And with that, all the pieces are in place for Odunlade Adekola’s 2023 historical picture, Orisa.
Perhaps the foremost thing to say about Orisa is that the events do not obviously take place in reality. There is something fantastical about the chorus-type delivery of the witches’ lines in the opening confrontation. Of course, this along with certain other elements from the film, has more in connection with theatre than traditional cinema. It is my intention to argue here, however, that perhaps with Orisa, we may have unlocked yet another genre of filmmaking.
Pull the trigger of a Dane gun once, and a dozen people die. Yes. In Orisa, the killing shot is never actually pointed at anyone in particular, just some general spot on the ground. How that leads to people dying can only be the stuff of magic. Killing is not, after all, the main function of the gun in this movie, even in the hands of a soldier.
In Orisa, a soldier’s job is not actually to do battle. A retinue of soldiers serves instead to accompany this lord or that lord, indulging in praise-singing the chant of the lord’s Oriki, ensuring to punctuate it with gunshots into the air. Perhaps one of the film’s most comedically timed moments comes when a startled lady asks the reason for the gunshots and the soldier responds that it is in honour of her. This is all well and good.
Perhaps one of the things that drive the misconception that this is a traditional movie may be the opening and end scenes featuring Yinka Quadri (Jagun Jagun, Gangs of Lagos), a modern-day narrator. Quadri plays his role with thoughtfulness, delivering the film’s moral at the end, however banal, with regal composure. But – and I mean this respectfully – imagine the storytelling taking place in a bar, or by someone with as much spiritedness as the three men at the heart of this movie. It is a failure of imagination to assume that a story can only be granted moral or dramatic heft, coming from a noble. And it is this failure of imagination that sees the soberness of Quadri’s performance being out of tone with the events as they unfold with all of the excitability.
Another thing which may have helped situate the tone of this film in its elements is the cinematography. Handled by Sanjo Adegoke (Ran Mi Lowo, Tanwa Savage), Orisa‘s cinematography excels in most features expected of a drama, with panning shots to introduce characters; medium and crane shots revealing raging warlords and chieftains in their elements. But what if more frenetic choices had been thrown into the mix? By all indications, Adegoke’s camera stands removed from the unfolding events, unaffected by the stirs caused by the numerous Oriki chanted in the film.
The turn of the Millennium saw a host of box office sensations which were aided first and foremost by their cinematography and editing, from the Wachowski sisters’ 1999 movie, The Matrix, to Zack Snyder’s 2006 epic thriller, 300. From Biyi Bandele’s 2022 movie, Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, to Orisa, the movie in question, there seems to be an attempt to adopt the narrative elements of the theatre into Nollywood historical pictures. Perhaps it’s time for filmmakers to start thinking about how every aspect of filmmaking could enhance the fantastical aesthetics of these ventures. Do possibilities lie in the anime, where feuding characters stand to announce their fighting moves, almost a mirror of the Orisa characters hyping themselves up for battle? Beyond that, after all, there is a line of descent from Stephen Chow’s 2004 hit action-comedy, Kung Fu Hustle, to Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Oscar’s Best Picture-winning 2022 movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once. But if Orisa fails to embrace its fantasy elements wholeheartedly, how does it fare on the narrative angle?
The Kabiyesi, Oba Adefolarin, as played by the film’s writer-director, Odunlade Adekola (Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, King of Thieves), goes insane at the start of the movie, and Orisa gives us samplings of mishap after mishap which befalls the kingdom as a result of this. But it is not until the final moments that we find out the precise reason for the King’s predicament. If Adefolarin was no sympathetic character on account of our estrangement from him, there is nothing about the end which suggests that he is deserving of pity, even in the twisted form it is finally granted to him. Orisa makes the King’s madness to be something novel and sudden. But certain excesses regardless, how is his behaviour any different from his prior years. What sane person chases his subjects through town with a machete on multiple occasions, needing only the pleadings of his mother to calm him down? Moreover, there’s no disregarding the fact that the King rapes his subjects, but beyond a few scandalised howls, there’s nothing to make of this in the way of repercussions.
There is Komokomo to consider, of course. Played by Femi Adebayo (Jagun Jagun, King of Thieves) to stirring efficiency, this invader from beyond has all the appearances of an opportunist who takes the disturbed state of the community to his advantage. He might be perceived as Oba Adefolarin’s scourge. But when we discover the nature of his grievance later in the film, perhaps to justify his eventual failure, we find that he is not any different from the Oba. He is an impulsive killer, moving one rung further than the Kabiyesi on the ladder of villainy, and he is just as given to sexual assault.
Midway between these men, we have Balogun Ayila, played by Muyiwa Ademola (Malaika, Prophetess). The Balogun functions as a warrior-chieftain, given to the defence of the Kingdom. In Orisa we are presented with a Balogun who all but abandons his duty and title, and does not mind escalating the news that his Kabiyesi has gone mad. By not making a play for the throne, one is left wondering the precise nature of his malady and indifference. Does he feel absolutely no connection with his countrymen being held captive? Perhaps accentuating the unnaturalness of the film, in one scene, his child is shot dead by Komokomo’s soldiers. What little bit of emotion he reveals comes off as braggadocious, like a fleeting insult to his reputation than anything else.
One major problem with Orisa is that despite all the frantic emotions and activities on display, the narrative drags on that one is left wondering too long about too many things before any respite is given. We are practically two-thirds of the movie gone before any attempt is made at finding the Kabiyesi a Babalawo; a healer. As with this, we are too far gone before a reveal is made on the source of the movie’s problems. But one does not quite know how to feel about this. Of all the Kabiyesi’s grievous errors, how is his rejection of the witches’ invite the one thing to send us on the journey of his chastisement and possible redemption? There is an attempt to include a supposed hurt to his Olori, herself belonging to the coven of witches. But without a clear-cut exposition of the nature of this hurt, the Olori’s role is relegated to that of the shocked, concerned wife, however adept this is managed by the much beloved Shaffy Bello (The Black Book, Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman).
One gets the sense, thus, that perhaps in line with the feudalistic nature of the times under portrayal, Orisa does not care much for the little and common people. One’s fate is dictated not by one’s morality or hard work, but by allegiances to various powers and authorities; which is made all the more precarious by outcomes totally subject to their whims.
Written, directed, and produced by the star actor, Odunlade Adekola, the derisively titled Orisa features rousing acting performances, with a narrative that is at once as thrilling as it is comedic. But with its reluctant adherance to traditional rules, the film undercuts its imagination on the way, delivering morals under-served by the preceding narrative.
(Orisa is currently streaming on Prime Video)
Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.