There is a desire in all of us to walk away from the sins of our past; to lay them on a funeral pyre and let the flames cleanse our souls. Oh if it were that simple – that we could just take a match to who we were, take on a new name and begin anew. Our past lives might seem like a movie we once watched filled with sorrow, pain, and harsh lessons.
Unfortunately, it’s never that simple.
DHEEPAN is the story of three refugees escaping the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka. Our titular hero (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is a Tiger fighter who has abandoned his commission and burned his uniform. Before he boards a boat for Paris, he is lumped in with two women – Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) – who will pose as his wife and daughter to make a fake passport more plausible. Once they land in France, they are set-up in a refugee community where Dheepan works as the building’s custodian and Yalini is tasked with housekeeping for an elderly Easten European man.
But as if trying to clear cultural barriers isn’t hard enough, a glimmer of the violence these Sri Lankans tried to escaped begins to creep in around them…leading one to wonder if the cycle of violence can ever truly be broken?
From the director of A PROPHETE and RUST AND BONE, DHEEPAN does an amazing job at striking balance in its story. It wants to play up the struggle and tension that this pseudo-family of refugees feels, but also doesn’t want us to continually wallow in the mire. To that end we get moments of gentle levity – not pure comedy exactly, more like nervous laughter (it’s suggested that Dheepan has no sense of humour in any language, which is joyous when it gets explained to him).
The film also does an amazing job at isolating these people while surrounding them with people. It makes us feel what it’s like to try to understand and be understood when you can hardly string two words together (giving us only an inkling of that actual feeling, mind you). It’s even reflected in the community they live in – well outside of the busy streets of Paris. The community is filled to the brim with refugees, but well away from true civilization.
What’s a little sad about a story like DHEEPAN is the way it spends so much time working so hard to engage us with the struggle and difficulties of these hard-working people, but ultimately devolves into chaos. It’s the story of a lot of immigrants in a lot of places around the world, and a valid one…but it’s heartbreaking to think about how much it overtakes so much else of what’s come before. That’s not a critique of the film at all, just a comment on the heartbreak that one feels as DHEEPAN comes to a bittersweet end.
At the TIFF premiere of this film, screenwriter Thomas Bidegain stated that he wants us all to look differently at the foreigners that try to sell us roses at our dinner table. I for one, will never look at these men and women the same way ever again.