Wednesday, March 23, 2011

ILLEGAL, Belgium's entry into the Oscar sweeps, tracks the immigrant experience

One of the most powerful and immediate films about illegal immigrants (from any country) to yet hit New York screens -- or screen, to be precise; so far it's opening in one theater, the Cinema Village on Friday, March 25 -- ILLEGAL tracks the experience over a decade of a Russian immigrant and her son in Belgium. To the credit of that small country that resides next to France and part of whose population shares the French language, the film was chosen to represent Belgium in the Best Foreign Lan-guage Film category, despite it showing us some wretched behavior from immigration authorities that may or may not have been well-known to the Belgian government prior to the film's release.

Written and directed -- with a fine eye and ear for both everyday detail and the appropriate choice of same that combines to build a believable world around the main characters -- by Olivier Masset-Depasse (shown at left), the film takes us into the lives of a mother Tania (Anne Coesens, below left) and son Ivan (played by the director's own son Milo, at age six, and for the rest of the film by Alexandre Gontcharov, below, right). Living in that constantly anxious state (which director and actress capture in spades) that I would think all illegals find themselves from day one until they are either caught and deported or manage to become "legal," Tania tries to get her son to speak French rather than Russian when in public so that they will not be so noticeable. Being a teenager who imagines that things have always been/will always be as they are, he doesn't comply. One day, out of nowhere, they pay the price for this.

A great strength of writer/director Masset-Depasse is his ability to tell and show just enough to grab us via questions that will only be answered  in time. This keeps us alert and questioning even more. Just what are the Belgian "rules" -- for both prison life and the more "normal" life outside -- that illegals learn to heed? The games that Tania, as well as her captors, play in order to finally win the day are sometimes bizarre and at first seem rather benign, but as the film progresses and the attempts to have Tania deported grow fiercer, the movie becomes stronger and more difficult to watch. I would imagine that these games and rules change in their specifics, and perhaps heavily, from country to country, yet the perseverance shown by Tania in the face of enormous power that wants to see her gone is finally remarkable

Who is responsible -- and why -- for the horrible bruises and beatings that inmate Aïssa (a terrific job from Essé Lawson, below right) bears each time she returns to incarceration? When and how we finally learn the answer makes for one of the most powerful and shocking scenes in the film. Masset-Depasse doesn't shy away from the ugly side of things but neither does he rub our noses in it. In fact, prison life in some ways seems remarkably benign, all things considered. One guard (whom I believe is played by Fabienne Mainguet, below, left) is genuinely kind and friendly, and the closeness and help the prisoners provide each other is also bracing for them -- and for us viewers.

There's a scene toward the end of the film that takes place on a plane full of passengers that is remarkable. Handled very skillfully by the director and his cast, it shows us with reality and force how mere citizens can rise up when their sense of justice and fairness is called into play. This scene is key, I think, to the often confused and jumbled reactions we have toward "illegals"  and how -- seemingly on a dime, when we observe something that yanks at our gut -- our response can change from uncaring or negative to completely pro-active. And yet...  I suspect this particular scene could only happen in Europe. America, I fear, would still side with the "law."

Illegal -- a wonderful and important film about a topic that will only grow more urgent worldwide -- raises all the above questions and more. From the increasingly indispensable Film Movement, the movie's getting a one-week release (March 25-31) in New York at the Cinema Village. So view it there, wait for the DVD to appear, or become a member of this film-of-the-month-club with very smart mainstream/art-house taste. But see it, in any case.

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