Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

A CIAMBRA – movie review


Sundance Selects
Director: Jonas Carpignano
Screenwriter: Jonas Carpignano
Cast: Pio Amato, Koudous Seihon, Iolanda Amato, Damiano Amato
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/9/18
Opens: January 19, 2018

A Ciambra Movie Poster

As a sequel to Jonas Carpignano’s 2015 “Mediterranea,” depicting two people making the dangerous trip from North Africa to southern Italy, “A Ciambra” has a new center in Pio Amato, fourteen years old when the film was made. What’s most interesting about the project is that the Romani performers are not only relatively untrained but act out events in their actual lives. Most use their real names as they move ahead in fits and starts. This is a relatively unstructured piece, perhaps with some improvisations, with the story’s picking up after the midsection. The most interesting segment finds the Amato family springing to attention as Pio Amato is caught stealing from a prominent Italian family, the patriarch having sworn that he would have killed the teenager had he not known the family.

The Romanis, the African refugees from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana, and the Italians live in proximity in a town in Calabria in southern Italy. The conditions are not exactly comparable to Trump Tower as the Africans appear to live in tents and the Romanis in a soulless white structure that looks like a project that could have come out of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union.

While low-level stealing is the only way that the Amatos make a living, the film is more about the coming of age rite of passage that could be similar in all countries. In some families, exceeding in studies might be the way; taking home all A’s on the report card wins the respect of fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. Not so with Pio. He is uneducated, unlettered in fact, though he has survival skills that might be the envy of Harvard graduates. He has a loving mother, Iolanda (Iolanda Amato), grandfather who is on his last legs but has one moment of clarity, a girlfriend who states that she loves him, and most of all a big brother, Cosimo (Damiano Amato), a role model that Pio believes can be pleased only by the teenager’s prowess in stealing.

He learns how to steal cars by crossing wires, but his favorite trick is to steal luggage from trains just before departures. His friendship with Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), a refugee from Burkina Faso, provides some of the sentimental touches, particularly when Ayiva takes him in when Pio is thrown out of the house by his father after a prominent Italian from whom he stole chews out the family.

The story lacks tight structure, not surprising since writer-director Jonas Carpignano seems in thrall of Italian neo-realism. Tim Curtin’s lenses follow Pio throughout, providing a sense of the Romani culture; the togetherness, the raucous dinners, the teasing. Perhaps the most comical scene occurs when Pio’s brother Cosimo excludes young Pio from a robbery. Pio takes it upon himself to provide a diversion by stealing a police car whose motor is left running, driving it off, dumping it and throwing the keys far away.

Though many bigoted people consider all gypsies to be thieves, other films rhapsodize about this ethnic group, such as Tony Gatlif’s 1993 “Latcho Drom,” which follows Romani as they travel through the Middle East and Europe. By contrast Emir Kusturica’s 1988 “Time of the Gypsies” follows a young Romani with telekinetic powers who is seduced into the world of petty crime to the ruination of his family.

The two themes of “A Ciambra” are the loving family bonds that keep Romani families together, and the petty crime that provides the way for some to survive given their lack of education or a culture that would allow them to assimilate into the greater community. The film is invaluable as a snapshot of their lives, acted by Romani people who perform via incidents they actually experienced.

Unrated. 120 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B