By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Lumumba, filmmaker Raoul Peck has made a biographical drama as fiery as the man whose brief existence it illuminates. Patrice Lumumba, a beer salesman and civil servant with radical dreams of freedom, ascended on flights of stirring oratory to become prime minister of the Congo when that African country achieved independence from Belgium in 1960; was assassinated; and rose in memory to martyrdom. His was a rocket-flare life, hot and explosive. And Peck, Haitian-born and raised in the Congo, knows that the story cannot be told in and-then-this-happened form.

Instead, the biopic jumps forward and doubles back — convulsively, dynamically — to imitate the rhythms of a country still trembling with unease. The story begins at the close of Lumumba’s days, when he was tortured and awaited death, sold out at the hands of his vulpine former friend, the emerging strongman Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas). Then Peck jumps back some years to show how Lumumba (French actor Eriq Ebouaney) became the complicated, compelling, uncontainable personality he was, a thorn in the side of even those who admired him because he had so little time for diplomacy in his plans for black self-rule.

The filmmaker races through historic events, backed by the thrumming music of Jean-Claude Petit. And Peck is right, it turns out, to trust his audience to master the chronology of history later. What matters now, what Lumumba conveys, is the urgent chaos of revolution.