Of all our shameful pastimes here in the US — and let’s be honest, there are plenty to choose from — trashing on immigrants has to rank right at or near the very top of the list, and given some of the headlines we’re seeing coming from Europe in recent weeks and months, it appears we’re not alone in being way less welcoming than we should be to our new friends and neighbors. You can toss all the tired arguments at me you want — “these people don’t speak our language,” “they come from a totally different culture,” “they don’t share our customs,” “they don’t understand how we do things here,” etc. — the simple fact is that the exact same thing was said about your Irish, German, Italian, French, etc. ancestors, and I bet that if they knew their family lineage would end up producing the same kind of xenophobic, nativist assholes that were giving them a hard time a century or two ago, they’d have thought long and hard about whether or not keeping the ol’ bloodline going was such a good idea.
And then there’s another factor too few “native-born” folks seem to take into consideration, namely : most of these people have endured hardships that would break any one of us in a fucking day just to get here, never mind the terrors they’re feeling back home that made leaving everything they know and love behind a necessity in the first place. Right now we’re stuck with a buffoon of a presidential candidate who’s making this anti-immigrant appeal the very centerpiece of his embarrassing and stupid campaign, but fortunately I have a viable solution to offer : anyone even considering voting for Donald Trump should be forced, by law, to sit down and watch French writer/director Jacques Audiard’s 2015 Cannes Palme D’Or winner Dheepan.
A rough, rugged, and decidedly visceral film, Dheepan takes the cliched “you can take the warrior out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the warrior” premise to a tragic new plateau as it follows the travails of its titular character (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan) from defeat on the battlefields of Sri Lanka, where he was a Tamil Tiger who lost his wife and both his children and is certain to be either imprisoned or killed himself now that a cease-fire has been declared, to the purportedly more “civilized” war zone of a suburban Paris housing project rife with gang violence. With him on the journey are a young woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a little girl named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), both without surviving families themselves, who are posing as his wife and daughter in order to make it easier for all of them to claim political asylum once the cargo ship they’re smuggled onto docks in France.
Needless to say these folks are all living well beyond what we would consider to be “the margins” of society as Dheepan does just about anything (see image above) to earn enough to keep a roof over all their heads for one more night, but when he lands a gig as the live-in caretaker at the government-subsidized tower block just mentioned, he thinks their luck is finally beginning to change. Illyaal gets enrolled in school for the first time, Yalini finds work herself cooking and cleaning for an invalid in the complex named Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaidi), and something of a more genuine familial bond forms between all three of them, complete with unsure, unsteady, but very real romance between the two ostensible “parents” of the household. But you just know that nothing good can last forever —
When Monsieur Habib’s good-for-less-than-nothing son, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is released from prison and moves in with his old man, the everyday dangers of life in the Parisian equivalent of the Cabrini Green escalate along with the drug trafficking that seems to follow in his wake, and soon Dheepan’s always-tenuous mental state begins to fracture as every single nightmarish vision and memory he’d been fleeing comes pouring into his mind. Antonythasan delivers a masterful performance from start to finish in this film, but as his character’s hold on sanity deteriorates, he really knocks it out of the park — seriously, this is one of the finest acting jobs you’ll see in this, or any other, year. And when his pseudo-“family” finds its very survival directly threatened thanks to the French equivalent of a “drive-by” shooting, well — all bets are off, and the Tamil Tiger is forced back into a role he desperately hoped to never have to adopt again.
As far as stark portrayals of the refugee experience go, you’re not going to find a better or more honest one than Dheepan. In addition to getting “grade-A” performances from his entire cast, Audiard expertly paces events here, alternating between tenderness and tension so that what it all “hits the fan” in the film’s climactic final act, every single movement and action is rife with consequence and import. His over-arching goal may have been (heck, probably was) simply to tell a relevant, topical, and realistic story deeply rooted in the human condition (a worthy enough ambition in and of itself), but what he’s delivered instead is an absolute masterclass on cinematic drama that any young filmmaker would do well to learn from — as would the entire “immigrant-bashing” crowd. The best flick I’ve seen in the theater so far this year, without question.