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‘Les Miserables’ creates a real sense of life on the ground in Montfermeil

“Les Miserables,” without Valjean or Javert or Fantine. And in case you’re a fan of musicals, it’s definitely without songs, too.

This 2020 film is indeed using the title of Victor Hugo’s classic and one can argue it embodies the spirit of that 19th century novel. But it has an entirely new plot, a new set of characters, and a new century, the 21st.

The movie is still set in Paris, or more accurately, the suburbs of Paris. Quite cleverly in fact, it’s even set in the same neighborhood that Hugo both wrote “Les Miserables” and placed some of the book’s action. Today, Montfermeil is a poverty stricken area with a mostly African and Arab immigrant population. Not surprisingly, tensions run high between the cops and the citizenry especially, but also between civilian factions – rival gangs, the Muslim Brotherhood, Gypsies (Roma), etc.

Into this volatile mix, the movie plops a police officer named Stephane who’s new to the area. He’s teamed with a couple of veteran cops, one a power-tripping hothead named Chris, the other a more reasonable-seeming African officer named Gwad. As the two veterans make their rounds, Stephane becomes more and more disturbed at how they treat people. They in turn dismiss him as a rube who doesn’t understand the way things work in the projects (Les Bosquet).

The plot gets underway when a lion cub goes missing from a circus traveling nearby and the carnies threaten to a riot if the cub is not returned. Something unexpected happens in the follow-through, and the resulting stand-off between all the various factions and the cops creates a metaphorical tinderbox.

Inspired by the riots in the suburbs of Paris over a decade ago, “Les Miserables” not only does a good job of creating a real sense of life on the ground in Montfermeil, it also does its best to humanize all parties involved. Without condoning police brutality, the film bears witness to the complexity of police work, and without excusing criminal violence, it acknowledges the justifiable rage felt in the immigrant communities.

It’s no surprise to find out first-time director Ladj Ly is himself an immigrant, from Mali, grew up in those very same projects in Montfermeil, and even served some time behind bars.

This film may not have cribbed its story from Victor Hugo but it does incorporate a crucial few lines from his novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” An apt summation of “Les Miserables,” the film.

Already the Jury Prize winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Les Miserables” is also a nominee for Best International Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

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