Having my recent experiences with Belgian films mostly confined to bittersweet comedies like Eldorado, I was somewhat unprepared for the unyielding bleakness of Olivier Masset-Depasse's Illégal, a film more in line with the emotional terrain of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's oeuvre than with the absurd humor of a work like Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine's Aaltra.
Winner of the Prix SACD at the 2010 Director's Fortnight at Cannes, Illégal highlights the plight of Tania (Anne Coesens), a woman who has fled Russia with her adolescent son in tow, seeking a better life in Belgium. Their actual experience in this newly adopted homeland is far from ideal, as an overwhelming paranoia about discovery and deportation by the authorities becomes a part of their daily lives. Early on, when the plot takes the expected turn and Tania is caught, she's separated from her son and thrown into a detainment center that resembles nothing less than a prison.
Massat-Depasse makes use of the fictional scenario as an opportunity to frankly discuss the real life treatment of illegal immigrants in contemporary Belgian society. Tania and her fellow inmates undergo extreme physical and mental abuse both within the walls of the holding station and, especially, when forced to participate in repeated "deportation rituals" designed to shake loose a confession from those inmates withholding the basic information required by the government to enact a legal deportation process.
The film's grim story is well supported by the omnipresent gray tones mixed into the color palette of its cinematography. The overall look of the film is a bit washed out but that, along with the use of hand held cameras throughout, helps forward the notion that we're peering into a reality lived by the dispossessed around the world, since the narrative is easily transposed to multiple nations whose actions surrounding illegal immigration are dubious at best.
As much as this sounds like an intellectual exercise on the part of the filmmakers, Coesens' powerfully nuanced performance as Tania is what keeps the movie from flying off the tracks and devolving into a formulaic message piece. Watching as Tania agonizingly yearns for a reunion with her son, despite full knowledge of all the obstacles conspiring to keep that from occurring, is to witness a performance so grounded in character and realistic motivation that it actually inspires a belief in the viewer that, if sheer will were enough, Tania just might overcome her circumstances.
Remember to find and "like" us on our Facebook page.
Subscribe to the blog's feed here.