By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK (CNS) — “Les Miserables” (Amazon) has no connection to Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name other than its setting — the rundown Paris suburb of Montfermeil, where the poor still struggle and continue to distrust authority figures.
The film addresses, straight on, the observation made by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath” when he wrote of “the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
This time, the poor are Muslim immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. They are packed into high-rise housing in a desolate, treeless end of town and have not assimilated into French national life and culture — other than sharing in the mania surrounding championship soccer games.
Director Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, uses the outline of a police procedural — the film mostly takes place over a single day in the work of a three-officer street crime unit — to form a powerful message about bigotry, suspicion and the abuse of power.
Although the script veers into polemics, Ly also goes to some effort to break all of the principal characters out of easy stereotypes and gives them room for reflection, since all are struggling to make moral decisions.
The most threatening figure in the story, Salah (Almamy Kanoute) — a career criminal who runs a cramped eatery — gets the most thoughtful line: “What if expressing anger is the only way to be heard?”
It’s the first day on the squad for Stephane (Damien Bonnard), He joins Gwada (Djebril Zonga), who still lives in the neighborhood, and the tough-talking Chris (Manenti), who is overbearing to children but considers himself a dealmaker with adults. As is usually the case with abusive types, his bluster masks his fear.
When Stephane, shocked after Chris bullies some teen girls at a bus stop, asks, “Can’t we be polite?” Chris snaps, “Then work as a butler in a palace!”
The story centers on a miscreant boy, Issa (Issa Perica), who has a talent for theft and has stolen a lion cub from a small circus. In the search for the cub and Issa, the boy is injured from a misfired flash-ball gun the police use to dispel crowds.
Complicating matters further, another boy, Buzz (Ly’s son, Al-Hassan) has captured the shooting with his camera drone, which means that the police have to find a way of getting Issa out of sight while attempting to retrieve the camera’s memory card. Otherwise, both sides fear a return of the rioting that once nearly destroyed the community.
The youths don’t pay much attention to the Muslim leadership, and the police can’t control their own impulses. Nothing gets solved.
Ly is not out to provide the audience with comfort. He clearly shows that racism is at the core of the neighborhood’s isolation.
But he stops short of lecturing. He wants instead to make viewers look and reflect.
In French. English subtitles.
The film contains some physical violence, frequent racist and sexual slurs, as well as pervasive rough and fleeting crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.