Les Misérables — not to be confused with the musical of the same name — is France’s entry in the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. The story is set in the impoverished Parisian district of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo lived while writing his famous novel. But it could actually be set in any location where cultures collide and tensions are high.
Issa (Issa Perica) is the vivacious and charismatic leader of a passel of young boys who roam the neighborhood looking for entertainment and often getting into trouble. Some of them are orphans, some of them have parents, and some, like Issa, are outcasts, kicked out of their homes for getting into trouble too many times. This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.
Three distinct groups maintain a loose sort of authority in this neighborhood as they all try to mold the boys into men: the Islamic Brotherhood, represented by Salah (Almamy Kanouté); the streetwise mayor (Steve Tientcheu) and his cronies; and the anti-crime unit of the police, whose job is to patrol and prevent crime rather than arrest and punish. All three groups have the same goal: to keep the peace by establishing good values among the youth in the neighborhood. All have good intentions, it seems. But who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best. They get along, but uneasily.
This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.
The story begins on the day when three things happen: the circus comes to town, the local soccer team enjoys an important victory, and the recently divorced Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) transfers from his police job in the suburbs to the anti-crime unit in Paris in order to be closer to his young son and his ex-wife. Ruiz immediately becomes disillusioned by what he sees on the job. They’re supposed to calm things down before violence erupts, but after ten years of working in Montfermeil his new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), have become jaded by the mission and often “calm things down” with in-your-face shouting and physical threats that just stir things up. Perhaps because of his estrangement from his own son, Ruiz takes a liking to Issa, which annoys his partners.
The neighborhood’s fragile détente is disturbed with the arrival of a traveling circus, run by gypsies. Issa, feeling lonely and rejected by his family, steals a lion cub to keep as a pet. All three neighborhood groups –the mayor, the Islamic Brotherhood, and the anti-crime unit — want to find the cub and return it before the circus owner, (who represents the foreign invader, I think), returns violence for theft. Metaphors abound in this slow-paced film that erupts in a shocking and explosive third act — which, in my opinion, earned its Academy Award nomination, despite its weak production values.
Who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best.
It has been suggested by some that this movie represents Hugo’s story from the dogged police officer Javert’s perspective, but I don’t buy that interpretation. Javert’s fault is that he believes too completely in the law, and that he is too just to be merciful. In the book, his virtue is ultimately his vice and his downfall. No one in this movie, and certainly none of the police officers, treats the law with that much respect. When things go wrong, they do whatever it takes not to be held accountable.
Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables: “Remember my friends, there is no such thing as bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” With his powerful third act, director Ladj Ly gives us an idea of the kind of harvest we might expect if we entrust the wrong cultivators with raising our youth. You will continue to think about these characters and how quickly everything changes for them — and why — long after the fade to black. It is a cautionary tale with implications that reach far beyond “the wretched ones” of Montfermeil.