“Le Havre,” written and directed by Aki Kaurasmaki, in French with English subtitles.
An older man, Marcel, with the telling last name of Marx (Andre Wilms), shines shoes outside the bus terminal in the port town of Le Havre. He gets few takers and goes home to his dog, Laika, and much younger, but plain, wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen). He takes the dog for a walk while she fixes dinner, and heads for the neighborhood pub. The camera stays on Arletty, chopping onions. A look of pain crosses her face; her hand moves to her chest.
They are the shabby poor, barely able to keep the tin roofs of their slapped together wooden homes over their head. A meal consists of cheese, bread (often stolen), and a glass of wine, occasionally a stew. On the way to the pub, shopkeepers along the way hassle Marcel about money he owes them, say he’s a thief. The simple life there is belied by an air of suspicion.
The overall mood of the film is depressing, but many of the characters the actors portray are quite heart warming.
People are stopped by authorities at random and asked for IDs. An Asian regular at the pub, named Chang (Quac Dung Nguyen), confesses to Marcel that he himself is an illegal—Vietnamese—with fake Chinese papers. Things heat up when a watchman at a shipping yard suspects that people have been smuggled in from Africa in a container.
Cops are called; an armored strike force shows up. When the container is opened people stare out blankly. A young, teenage boy, wearing jeans and a sweater, dashes out. A cop raises his assault rifle but is stopped by Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), in long dark overcoat and slouch hat. “He’s only a boy,” he says. Headlines and TV news reports about the immigrants lead to fear of an al Queda connection. Authorities ask if they are terrorists.
Eating his lunch in the harbor one day, Marcel sees the boy hiding hip deep in the water under a pier. With one look, an understanding is reached. From then on, while his wife is in the hospital, dying of an unstated fatal disease, Marcel helps the boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). In a roundabout way involving a visit to an immigration detention center, where he lies about his relationship to the detainee (“I’m the family albino”), Marcel is told that Idrissa’s grandfather lives near Calais, in a camp with other migrants on a beach called “The Jungle.”
Calais is currently home to around 1000 migrants—about 800 Afghans—who want to get to the UK and avoid the strict immigration controls at the port. French authorities destroyed their camp in a dawn raid in 2009 (the film was made in 2011). Some inhabitants were imprisoned at the Centre de Rétention of Coquelles; others were taken to detention centers all over France before being released. They then try to make the long journey back to Calais on foot while French authorities threaten to repatriate them to Afghanistan.
A nosy neighbor rats on the boy. The shopkeepers—now sympathetic since Marcel is about to become a widower, along with palpable contempt for the authorities—hide Idrissa during Marcel’s absence. After a long bus ride to Calais, a taxi drops him at the immigrants’ beach camp. Idrissas’s stately, robed, grandfather, Mahmat Saleh (Umban U’kset), gives him the name and address of the boy’s mother, a legal resident, living in London.
With Inspector Monet constantly on their heels, the film begins to feel like “Les Miserables” or “The Fugitive,” with Monet as Javert or Samuel Girard respectively. Eventually, Idrissa is stowed away in the hold of a fishing vessel. Marcel had arranged a charity concert, headed by real-life rocker, Little Bob (Robert Piazza), a strange, small man with a white, birds’ nest hairdo, to raise the fee for the boat owner to take Idrissa across the Channel to England, where he’ll find his mother.
Although the film deals with the themes of injustice, poverty, and the systematic oppression waged against immigrants, its message is never heavy handed. Hopefully, many in the audience will come away from “Le Havre” with increased sympathy for immigrants, and more understanding of their plight.
> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith, and first appeared in the February 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.