The miserable

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By José Geraldo Couto*

Commentary on the film Les Miserables – by Ladj Ly – which shared the Jury Prize with Bacurau at the Cannes festival and competes for France for the Oscar for best foreign film.

unlike the musical The miserable, taken to the screen by Tom Hooper in 2012, this is not an adaptation of the famous homonymous novel by Victor Hugo, but perhaps a translation of its essence for today. What remains of direct mention of the book is, basically, the location of the story in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, in addition to Hugo's phrase transcribed before the end credits, summarizing the spirit of the work: "There are no weeds or bad men, but bad cultivators”.

Ladj Ly's film is a contemporary and electrifying cinematic reading of this idea. Its construction is devilishly precise and engaging, its development vibrant, devoid of sentimentality or edifying speech.

In the first sequence, we see boys from the peripheral neighborhood moving to the center of Paris to watch the 2018 World Cup final in Russia, won by France, on a big screen. The euphoria of the multiethnic crowd, vibrating with victory and proudly singing the Marseillaise, creates an image of a single and multiple nation, of cohesion in diversity.

It is this illusory construct that the narrative will begin to dismantle in each scene. From the supporters, the point of view shifts to a trio of policemen patrolling the neighborhood. Through the eyes of the three (one of them newly arrived in the district) we explore a territory divided by power groups that are precariously balanced: the drug dealers, the Muslims, the “mayor” (a kind of local militia leader), the gypsies and the city itself. police.

Tension grows around an unusual event: the theft of a lion cub from a gypsy circus by a neighborhood boy, Issa (Issa Perica), who also steals chickens to feed the animal, hidden in a shack. A child's prank that puts the place on the brink of war.

One of the tricks of the narrative is to keep the viewer involved with the tense negotiations between the groups, without knowing very well what is going on on the boys' side, as if theirs were an underground world with its own, secret evolution. In a biased way, The miserable is nonetheless a film about marginalized childhood, along the lines of The forgotten (Luis Buñuel) or pixote (Hector Babenco).

At a certain point, with the police cornered, violence explodes, accidentally filmed by a private drone – and the dispute over the image becomes the motive of the action, reshuffling the cards in the game. Issa, the restless boy who is the first character identified by the camera in the collective sequence at the beginning, returns transformed (or rather, deformed) to star in the ending, which is disturbing not only because it suspends the action at its climax, leaving the outcome open , but because, whatever this one is, we know that it will not be a happy ending.

Another sagacious move of the narrative is to lead the spectator to identify, at least partially, with the police officer Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), the newcomer, who is also discovering that changing universe and who brings in his eyes a kind of moral astonishment.

Se Bacurau exposes a Brazil split in half, The miserable reveals a shattered France in social, ethnic, cultural and religious terms. With two basic differences: the French film does not resort to allegory and does not offer catharsis. Instead of open applause and euphoria at the end, it leaves the audience in uncomfortable silence.

A black director born in Mali and raised in Montfermeil, who served a prison sentence for the crime of kidnapping and “contempt of authority”, Ladj Ly knows very well what he is talking about. The miserable it's his first feature film, and it's nothing short of a prodigy.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic.

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG

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