This subtitled French biographical drama tells the story of an Afro-Cuban circus performer in the Belle Époque era of France. The performer is Chocolat, who was identified after his death as Rafael Padilla. Born in 1868, he was the first black stage performer in France, and performed on stage in France around the turn of the 20th. century.
Rafael (Omar Sy) came into the world without a surname and had little memory of his parents. He was raised in the slums of Havana, and ran away to become a servant slave to Theodore and Yvonne Delvaux (Frederic Pierrot and Noemie Lvovsky), who were the owners of “Cirque Delvaux” in regional France.They treated him insensitively and unfairly, but he brought them money when he joined forces with an established clown, George Footit, a role taken by James Thierree, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin. Footit was a failing performer who found energy with Rafael. Footit recognised Rafael’s potential and trained him to be a circus clown. The two of them performed together, and it was Footit who gave Rafael the name of Chocolat. Parisian impresario, Joseph Oller (Olivier Gourmet), spotted the pair, recognised their talent, and set them up in Paris as one of Nouveau Cirque’s main attractions.
The name of the film is significant. The term “Chocolat” was interpreted by the circus public at the time as signifying someone who deserved ridicule or abuse, and Rafael used the name of Chocolat to confirm the public’s racist expectations. He quickly became popular by exploiting his slave identity. Rafael comically performed as a primitive, black man, and played willing victim to Footit, while Footit drew laughter by ridiculing him. The success of their circus act, however, ultimately highlighted the talent of Rafael, and the two clowns eventually parted. Rafael was the star people came to see. His performances projected racism to entertain others, and his antics, combined with his strong athleticism, made him famous.
The film is a period piece with genuine social bite. Forced by circumstances to find his true identity, Rafael confronts Footit in public one night, and his challenge makes for powerful cinema. The Director of the film, Roschdy Zem, directs the scene as a victory over racism. Rafael is determined to be equal to others both on stage and off it, and the scene movingly depicts Rafael’s final decision in the circus ring to turn away from being seen as a black man acting dumbly.
Omar Sy is outstanding as Rafael, and was the black caretaker looking after a moody, white paraplegic man in the popular movie, “The Untouchables” (2011). This film wonderfully demonstrates his talent, especially as the film moves from comedy to dark tragedy, when Rafael’s gambling, drinking and womanising causes his self-empowerment to fade under the pressure of the racial hypocrisy that existed around him. Thierree also excels in the role of Footit.
This film explores pressing social issues, and dramatically confronts racism in France. It captures historically the role that the clown, Chocolat, played in raising consciousness of France’s multicultural identity, and it informs about the vitality of European Arts, the status of racial integration at the time, and the meaning of friendships – found, lost, and unexpectedly regained.
Omar Sy’s charismatic acting demonstrates prejudice lying deceptively in laughter, and Roschdy Zem, the Director, ensures that the film’s thoughts about racial identity are communicated insightfully. This is a compelling drama to enjoy, with a sad touch to it caused by rampant prejudice, and it is a film that invites one to think further about the serious issues that it raises.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting