The day of the wretched poor

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It is the day of the wretched and poor in Cannes. The French director Ladj Ly took the audience by storm, when his debut feature LES MISERABLE depicting the vulnerable underbelly of the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil unspooled here.

From the ecstatic, patriotic, cheering and charged atmosphere of the World Cup victory celebrations, the film descends down to look at the daily routine of the people and poor children living in the banlieue Les Bosquets. A squad of two street patrol policemen give their new colleague Stephane and the audience a tour of the district with its bustling flee market, the hierarchy with the “Mayor” and other elements, their relationship with the squad. The scene is set.

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But the major players are not going to be either the “Mayor” or the drug lord or the Salah of Muslim brotherhood whom the police can influence and control. They provoke the children and how do they respond? They refuse to take the insults lying down and decide to protest in their own way bringing the law and order machinery and the so called ‘leaders of the people” to their knees. Their reaction is violent, visceral and some times unbelievable. The children managing to put together a strategy and material to take on the Police team in a matter of few minutes needs willing suspension of disbelief. There are missiles filled with firecrackers, Molotov cocktails and whatever comes to their hand. We see fury on one side and fear on the other. The hunters turn hunted and the hunted turn hunters. It is pure fire for fire situation.

The film also juxtaposes a rulebook cop Stephane with the abusive, corrupt and overbearing Chris whose phenomenal line “I am the law” is given a powerful jolt.

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If Hugo’s novel is, “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, … from corruption to life” Ladj Ly’s film is just a portrayal of the simmering poverty, discontent and exploitation, many times acquiring racist and religious tones. The only sane voice in the midst of all this mindlessness is that of Stephane, the new entrant who is a single father, still caring for his son living away from him and still giving priority to the rule book and justice.

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