Thursday, June 9, 2016

An unblinking look at refugee life

Trying to survive in French housing projects is no picnic..
If you have any interest in the world's immigration problems, you owe it to yourself to see director Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, the story of three Sri Lankan refugees who wind up living in a bleak housing project in the downscale suburbs of Paris.

To escape Sri Lanka, Dheepan -- the movie's title character -- creates a faux family. Yalini (Kalieswari Srinivasan) poses as his wife and the mother of nine-year-old Illayall (Claudine Vinasithamby), an orphaned girl plucked -- almost at random -- from a refugee camp.

After arriving in France, Dheepan lands a job as a janitor in a complex of buildings that's overrun by violence and drugs.

Almost from the start, we know that Dheepan is no pushover; he's a former fighter with the Tamil Tigers, a group that opposed the Sri Lankan government in a long and brutal civil war.

As played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, the quiet but alert Dheepan constantly must be on guard. He knows that his survival, as well as that of his impromptu family, hinges on his ability not to call undue attention to himself.

Some of the movie deals with typical issues faced by immigrants: struggling with a new language, enrolling a child in school, mastering the ebb and flow of daily life in strange surroundings.

All of this takes place against the lawless backdrop of housing projects where unemployment runs high and gunfire has become commonplace.

Audiard does nothing to mar a track record that includes movies such as the 2001 thriller Read My Lips and 2009s A Prophet. If you've seen either of those movies, you have a feel for Audiard's style, an unforced realism that centers on characters pushed into extreme situations.

In Dheepan, which won the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Audiard builds toward a violent conclusion that, at first, may strike you as too similar to a B-movie helping of blazing revenge.

I won't give away more, but know that this eruption directly connects to Dheepan's past. There's only so much a man like him can take before he snaps, and when he snaps, he reverts to his warrior past.

A brief epilogue feels too good to be true, but Audiard may have decided he owed both his characters and his audience some respite from the hardcore realities he has depicted.

If so, I was more than ready for it.

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