AFI FEST Review: Dheepan

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Immigration has been a constant in human experience since before nations had borders. Whether by choice, necessity, or force, the movement of individuals, families, and even entire peoples have fundamentally shaped the course of human history. For all of these large scale ramifications, it’s valuable to examine that shift on a person by person basis. Dheepan, this year’s winner of the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a story of one man’s struggle to submerge his troubled past as he tries to forge a new path in a new country. Indeed, his story may be similar to many others, until the narrative takes a violent turn.

Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) has nothing left to lose. As a soldier in the midst of a civil war in Sri Lanka, he has the capability for violence, but also seeks an escape. With both his wife and daughters’ lives claimed by the brutality of war, he seeks to emigrate to France, but he does so with a false family. The woman he claims as his wife (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and the girl he calls his daughter (Claudine Vinasithamby) are essentially strangers. Neither has much interest in him either, but all welcome the freedom of moving away from their troubles. Dheepan finds work as a caretaker in a fairly run down apartment complex, and he has his struggles with learning French and being social. These are the common difficulties all immigrant families experience, and his adopted wife and daughter also have issues with assimilation. Gradually, Dheepan begins to feel at home, and even shares feelings with the two people who were once strangers to him. However, their serenity is abruptly disturbed when gang violence erupts in the neighborhood, and Dheepan is forced to choose whether to stand idly by or whether to act.

Director Jacques Audiard is no stranger to films with characters thrust into new situations with violent outcomes. His 2009 film A Prophet is one of the most muscular prison / gangster films of the last decade, so it’s an interesting point of comparison to see him flex a little less on Dheepan. The first half may feel a little conventional in terms of the narrative, but the key trio of performances keep the film grounded. All three actors have virtually no experience acting on screen, and in the case of Antonythasan, no acting background period. As a nonactor, he takes on the role with remarkable grace, keeping Dheepan’s emotions in check until outside forces corner him in. Claudine Vinasithamby also turns in a strong performance, initially resistant to any adjustment, but incrementally warms to her new environment. The film’s latter stages are where the tone shifts dramatically, and while it may be a stark contrast from the modest beginnings, it’s such a startling transition that it provides new contexts to many of the early scenes. Above all, the filmmaking on display in the later scenes is terrific, from the tracking photography, to the well timed cuts in the climax. Dheepan seems to be asking whether a change of location can result in a change of character, and while the answer is ostensibly yes, it makes certain that one’s past will always inform one’s future.

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~ by romancinema on November 10, 2015.

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