The Oscar nominated French film “Les Misérables” may share the same title of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, but it’s far from an adaptation or retelling. Rather, it’s a harrowing reworking of the same themes of class and socioeconomic upheaval, and it holds the same French setting as Hugo’s classic.
Currently nominated for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, African filmmaker Ladj Ly, in his directorial debut, has crafted a film that has a penetrating and naturalistic grit and grime about it. But it stands on its own as a chronicle of racial tension and police brutality, a sign that in a certain city or town we consider to be dangerous slums, there are always victims who not only want to escape that lifestyle, but there are people who are so victimized by such abuses of power and prejudices that they have nowhere else to go. The communities also become so cultivated with crime that survival hinges on lawlessness.
“Les Misérables” captures these horrors of life in poverty-driven communities in a vivid way. The saga begins very much in the vein of Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 police drama “Training Day” that is about a cop’s first day on the job. The film follows Corporal Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who has just transferred to a new police patrol in the ghetto of Paris. Ruiz is assigned to work with two fellow officers: Chris (Alex Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). They refer to Ruiz as “Greaser” as they affectionately tease him to loosen up on the job. During their exchanges, Ruiz reveals that he holds principles of civility towards the Black Muslims in his community that he is hired to serve and protect, but Chris and Gwada remain aloof to Ruiz’s “nativity”.
As the day passes, the officers find themselves in the slums of Montfermeil (this is the town’s name in Hugo’s original novel), a community that has drug trafficking, street prostitution, and even human trafficking. It’s a place where the authority and police transforms itself into something more laissez faire, in which a black teenager named Issa (Issa Perica) steals a cub lion. Once he is tracked by the police, he is caustically thrown to the ground and roughed up by the prejudiced police officers that place no value in upholding their principles of serving and protecting their community. The way the children are treated in the streets echoes the vivid realism found in Fernando Meirelles’ 2003 masterpiece “City of God”, in which the children have to fend for themselves at a young age and are disregarded by a system that sees no value in their existence.
Situations go awry once it is discovered that Issa’s stolen circus animal actually belongs to Romani gypsy performers. The Romani performers threaten to start a war with the Black Muslims if they don’t get the cub back. The officers’ brutality ends up going too far and it’s caught on drone surveillance footage that belongs to one of neighborhood kids named Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Once the video footage gets to the media, there will be outrage and an uprising by the local residents. The officers begin searching for Buzz in an attempt to recover the footage that will present severe consequences as the film unfolds with galvanizing power.
Newcomer Ly crafts the film with a piercing, cinéma vérité energy that consists of handheld camera work and some impressive tracking shots. There are some first-rate set-pieces which drive the adrenaline and immediacy the material needs. The film should also be commended for displaying empathy for the officers–a lesser film would have just made them one-dimensional villains, but Ly is interested in capturing the complex and gray truths while still driving home his message against police brutality and the abuse of power, showing how this misconduct often occurs specifically in impoverished neighborhoods.
“Les Misérables” is both exciting and moralizing; it works well as a morality tale about the abuse of power, yet the reality of the experiences dramatized keep the material relevant and levelheaded. There are bursts of harsh grit and some layered character depth that prevent the film from being an exercise in sheer pandemonium. Ly reminds the viewer that these communities are constantly badgered by law enforcement, but the community also suffers from their own citizens committing crimes.
“Les Misérables” should appeal to a wider demographic of audiences that can overcome “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”, as Korean filmmaker Bong Jong-ho recently put it. There’s a level of devotion in the filmmaking and performances here that really takes off. The experience is indeed bleak and visceral, but it still remains artistically and emotionally gratifying with its visual and polemic fortitude.