Friday, June 3, 2016

From one war zone to ... another

Dheepan, which opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre, won last year’s Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie, by French director Jacques Audiard, is a combination exploration of the Third World immigrant experience and a basic good versus evil drama set in a gang-infested housing project in Paris’s northeastern suburbs. The film is emotionally touching as it follows Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) and Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who flee the strife of the Sri Lankan civil war where Dheepan was a fighter with the Tamil Tigers, one of the combatants. The two are not married but pose as a couple along with a presumed daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). They head to France and through connections Dheepan gets a job in a dilapidated slum. You know the story because it’s been told a hundred times, from On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) to Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), before: good people trying to live decent lives get enmeshed in gang warfare. After Sri Lanka, in other words, war of another kind, which is part of the picture’s point. So on this score the film is a little clichéd. And, frankly, I’m surprised it drew this much critical acclaim at Cannes. Sure, the Tamil immigrant experience is different but substitute Dheepan for someone who’d fought in another country and the story would be the same – just change the ethnic backdrop. Anyway, in the plot, Dheepan is hired as a caretaker and does a conscientious job. Yalini is also hired to take care of a disabled old man. Illayaal goes to school where she’s frightened of learning French and beats up on another kid. The “family’s” efforts to re-establish themselves are hindered by a gang who has taken over one of the housing blocks, essentially controlling the neighborhood. Dheepan and Yalini are reluctantly forced to deal with the thugs, eventually leading to a maelstrom. The film has a slow, plodding pace but is redeemed somewhat by the very good acting of the two leads (Jesuthasan in his youth was an actual Tamil Tiger). Jesuthasan's character’s quiet deliberateness is matched by the shy uncertainty of Srinivasan’s Yalini, both trying to find their footings in the new world. Their personal relationship, marked at turns by unfamiliarity and sometimes clumsy attempts at emotional connection, is played with effective nuance.

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