Tuesday 5 April 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan checks out Fandor's offering on The Immigrant Experience

Nothing new came to the cinemas near me this week, so I spent most of my time watching films from the Criterion Collection  on the streaming website Fandor . Each week, Fandor offers a group of 7-10 films from the famous collection, chosen to fit a theme. Each set runs for twelve days, so there are usually two themes available at once. I watched four films from ‘The Immigrant Experience’, and enjoyed all of them.

 La  Promesse (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium/France, 1996) follows Igor (Jérémie Renier), a Belgian teenager whose father (Olivier Gourmet) runs an exploitative business as a landlord for undocumented immigrants, using them as cheap labour for building projects. Igor has the means to get out of this racket through an automotive apprenticeship, but he trusts and follows his father. When an African worker falls from a scaffold and dies, Igor promises to look after the man’s wife and infant, and holds true to this despite his father’s increasing rage at the situation.

The Dardennes can always be relied upon to tell deeply touching human stories. They examine the way real people feel, and the choices they make within their lives. They display a belief in the inherent goodness within people, in the willingness to make sacrifices for others. Their films use intimate stories to highlight societal injustice, without ever feeling like they’re preaching. All of that could be said about any one of their films, of course, but their greatness lies in their consistency.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/France/Germany, 2011) is another story about an illegal African immigrant. Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young boy from Gabon, escapes into the French city of Le Havre when the rest of the group he travels with are discovered and captured. As Idrissa evades the police, he finds himself in the care of an elderly shoe polisher called Marcel (André Wilms), who is also caring for his sick wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). The film follows La Promesse thematically, focusing on the idea that human beings can and will decipher the correct course of action, even when it clashes with the law. The characters here do what they know in their hearts they must, and we leave the film with a great sense of satisfaction.

I’m not yet otherwise familiar with Kaurismäki’s work, but I greatly enjoyed the tone of this film. It brings a lightheartedness to a serious situation, without undermining the importance of the story. Marcel and Arletty’s story in particular feels vaguely magical, especially in the way it wraps up. There’s no reason I can see that this should work in the context of the rest of the film, but it simply does. I look forward to seeing more from this director.

My favourite of the three great films I saw this week about illegal immigration was El Norte (Gregory Nava, UK/USA, 1983). The story follows siblings Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villalpando), native Guatemalans who flee from their home when the rest of their family is captured or killed by government troops. They head north, first to Mexico and then to the United States, seeking the fabled land of prosperity and freedom. This long film plays out in three titled chapters, one in each of the countries.

The film examines the plight of refugees, as we see the siblings unable to return home for fear of death, but unable to live and work in the United States without constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of discovery and deportation. They’re able to improve their standing in life, but only as far as exploitative people will allow them to, and always with the knowledge that it could all be stripped away from them without notice. This film is utterly earnest. Its characters show desperation, resilience and above all hope, no matter what life throws at them. It contains both a wonderful journey and a crushing sense of tragedy, and it’s the best film I saw this week.

Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, Italy/USA, 1950) is very different take on the immigrant experience. Ingrid Bergman plays Karin, a Lithuanian woman who marries an Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) to escape from a post-war internment camp. He tells her exciting things about the island he lives on, but fails to mention the active volcano taking up much of its surface. Karin is unimpressed with this. She refuses to accept the island, and its other inhabitants refuse to accept her, so she finds herself trapped and alone in a place she hates. Her husband is sometimes loving and supportive, sometimes brash and cruel. Bergman spends a great deal of the film weeping.

The setting is so unique, and Bergman’s performance so good, that they overcome some of the film’s less successful moments. There’s one fishing scene in particular which drags on and on and on without actually doing or saying anything, as though Rossellini thought he was making a documentary. The feeling of alienation is overwhelming, as it must have been for many other immigrants in post-war societies which wouldn’t embrace them. The film surprised me with the bleakness and suddenness of its ending, but upon reflection this is probably the best scene in the film.

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