Although “Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly, is not an adaptation of the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo, there are a few unmistakable connections. For one thing the drama rooted in contemporary poverty and anti-immigrant bias is set in the same Paris suburb, Montfermeil, appearing in Hugo’s story. There is also a nasty cop who may remind you of the novel’s dreaded Inspector Javert. Even more importantly, an eventual revolt by the area’s harassed young inhabitants of color with immigrant heritage conjures up the spirit of the student revolt depicted in Hugo’s plot.
That said, the story that we follow, scripted by Ly, Alexis Manenti and Giordano Gederlini, and vigorously directed by Ly, is of our era, when local cops look down upon the neighborhood predominantly dark-skinned boys in housing projects and methodically terrorize them.
This part of the population that considers itself French is depicted at the outset as proudly joining the street demonstrations celebrating France’s World Cup victory in 2018.
The drama’s basic situation begins to come into focus when a police unit its joined by an assigned newcomer, Ruiz, stoically played by Damien Bonnard, a decent and ethical chap appalled by the nasty behavior of Chris (Manenti), who gets a kick out of bearing down on the neighborhood youths. His black partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga) goes along with the atrocious behavior.
We also get a picture of the power-wielding ethnic adults in the neighborhood, one known as the “mayor,” who tries to keep a lid on things, and another, a Muslim leader with a shady past, to whom youths go when they need someone with clout to solve problems.
Given the behavior of the marauding cops, we know trouble will arise and escalate. The situation is lit when a young lad, Issa, (Issa Perica), is accused of stealing a lion cub from a local circus. When he is pursued violently and wounded in the face, another boy who likes to fly drones captures what happens on a video from the drone, thus making him a target of Chris, who needs to get the proof of the shooting squelched.
How the story unfolds is a revelation, thanks to the realistic, intense filming and the expert portrayal of all involved. If you expect all to be worked out in the end, you are in for a surprise, as the film concludes by making us wonder what will happen in a crucial standoff.
The film hauntingly packs power in its depiction of the explosive situation in France’s immigrant centers, and the anti-immigrant feelings there, and by inference, elsewhere. But the story suggests that there is a revolutionary spirit that can take hold, just as that which Hugo depicted in his time. Released by Amazon Studios in 2019. Reviewed January 13, 2020.