There is perhaps no political issue — aside from health care maybe — that stirs passions more than that of illegal immigration. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s undeniable that it’s a complex one with ramifications that touch on education, the economy and yes, even the aforementioned health care. It’s a thorny topic too, often rooted in personal experience, that it can be difficult to view it from any objective angle. But for director Olivier Masset-Depasse, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie and in “Illégal,” Belgium’s official foreign film selection for last year’s Oscars, he makes his case with all the subtlety of a man pounding his fist on the table.
The story follows Tania (Anne Coesens) an illegal Russian immigrant in Belgium, with a child, who fears going back home following an undescribed incident which we’re made to understand was fairly horrific. With the help of the the mob, she managed to get her son Ivan (Alexandre Gontcharov) smuggled in and find an apartment, but of course, she remains in debt to them. She works a job under the table and scrimps and saves to finally buy fake documentation should she ever be stopped on the street and asked for ID. Of course, the tragedy here is that when she is stopped shortly after receiving her papers — and on Ivan’s birthday no less — she doesn’t have them on her and when she tries to run, she’s arrested while her son manages to escape the clutches of the authorities. This opening — an exploration of the levels of paranoia and deceit an illegal must deal with on a day to day basis — is actually fairly fascinating stuff and a whole movie on just this could have been great. But Masset-Depasse has a lesson to impart and it’s really what happens next that drives the film.
Tania is thrown into the Kafka-esque system of Belgian detention centers. She is advised to keep her mouth shut and she does so for three reasons. Firstly, not soon after she arrives she hears that if the can last five months without the authorities finding out her name or identity, she will quietly be released back onto the streets. Secondly, she fears that if they know who she is, her son will eventually be snatched up as well and deported. Finally, there is the issue of the mob who are greatly concerned that she might trade her freedom in exchange for naming names and pointing fingers. And at the start of her stay, Tania is remarkably strong and stoic in her struggle. But it isn’t long before the stretch of time, the distance from her son and the grim surroundings wear on Tania. Finally, in desperation, she gives them a name. That of her best friend, also an illegal. And it makes things worse.
Tania bet on her friend not being in the system, and lost the gamble. The name turns up in their files and suddenly she’s on the fast track for deportation to Belarus, a country she’s never been to and where she knows nobody. Tania tries to plot an escape, but seeing the bruises and scars on her fellow inmates who have tried, and were beaten savagely for the effort, she resists. However, when the steps are taken to get her on a plane with a marshall and flown back home, things get very, very real. While she is told that they will only fly when she is comfortable, these are just empty promises. Every time she gets weak-kneed about getting on the plane, she is beaten by four male officers brutally and without remorse. These deportations are enforced by extraordinary violence and the humanitarian approach espoused by the officials is not even worth the paper its written on. While we can’t tell you what happens next for fear of spoiling the film, it takes a very extreme situation and the kind of moment of collective public consciousness only seen in movies, to drive home the message the filmmakers want.
To be fair, Masset-Depasse did do intensive research for a year before making the film, and in Belgium, “Illégal” was considered quite eye-opening, shedding light on a problem — the rather Dickensian system for dealing with illegals — that was largely kept under the surface. And while the director can be lauded for his efforts in bringing attention to the failures and inadequacies of the system, nothing can forgive the leadenly one-sided narrative. In “Illégal” every single person with a uniform is male and comes off as a monster. Oh sure, there is the token single mother working at the detention center who has a sympathetic heart — to a point — but everyone else is an ignorant clod who prefers to use fists and clubs rather than words. And Masset-Depasse really goes for the waterworks by having Tania befriend a small child and Aïssa, a young Malian immigrant, and have each of those characters tragically ripped from her life too, all in the name of his dramatic exposé. This is an issue that begs for nuance and balance, but it’s not to be found here in Masset-Depasse’s singular screed and it’s a shame, because beneath all the bluster, he’s got a compelling portrait of the difficult life an illegal faces but also how intricately these persons tie into the economic and cultural life of a city or country. One almost wonders at times, why he didn’t just make a documentary instead; it certainly would’ve been a much better format to get into the thorny tangles of the issue with much more complexity.
Yet, despite the film’s narrative flows there are some highlights that are worth taking away. Coesens’ performance is riveting; she is a longtime collaborator with Masset-Depasse and it shows. She’s fearless here in a part that is both physically and emotionally wearying and the actress is in top form. And visually, the film is kinetic, employing a grimy digital hand held style that still carries with it rawness and immediacy that lends itself very well to the proceedings; the influence of Paul Greengrass is definitely felt. But it’s still not enough to rescue the film. Driven by a singular goal, Masset-Depasse loses the pull of the film to his insistence on its message. “Illégal” doesn’t answer many questions, largely because by time the film ends it has only just started asking them. [C]