War fascinates cinema--sometimes even more than love and romance do. And at the ongoing 68th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, we saw a moving story of the Holocaust (Son of Saul), one on the 1980s Punjab militancy, and on Thursday, French director Jacques Audiard's brilliant take on the Sri Lankan ethnic strife that plunged the picturesque island nation into a 30-year bloody mess. Thousands were killed, thousands maimed and orphaned and one of them is nine-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) in Audiard's competing fictional feature, Dheepan.
For me, a Tamil-speaking Indian it was just wonderful to hear the characters in the French helmer's work speak in that language. In my 26 years at Cannes, I do not recall a movie where Tamil was the language. And mind you, made by an essentially French auteur, who has in the past, given us works such as Rust and Bone and that brilliant A Prophet.Dheepan, like Prasanna Vithanage's haunting film, With You, Without You, is an attempt to soothe souls tortured by the war. Dheepan opens with a funeral pyre which seemingly indicates that Sri Lankans and the nation itself want to lay to rest the inglorious past -- laced with rancour and revenge. Audiard's is a story of a former Tiger -- part of the Vellupillai Prabhakaran's Liberation Tigers of Tami Eelam, which fought for a separate homeland for the Tamil-speaking minority in the country.
But Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) does not want to have anything to do with even the memory of the war. He cremates his former comrades, burns his own uniform before seeking political asylum in France, and to make this look authentic, he finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) to act as his wife and Illayaal as their daughter to make the family complete.
However, when they settle down in a Paris suburb, peace does not come easily to them. The place is infested with drug peddling, gun-totting gangs whose bullets and bravado disturb Yalini and the little girl even as they try desperately to shake off their messy past.The movie has several riveting moments -- as we see Dheepan (after telling off a former Tiger colonel that the war for him is truly over) becoming a caretaker for the housing complex where he lives, as we see Yalini taking on the job of a carer and Ilayaal beginning her French lessons in a new school.
In a way, Audiard's film is a strong comment on immigrant experience in France, but it is also a powerful statement on war and the uphill task of those coming to terms with it -- and seeking a peaceful way out of it. The climax could not have said this in a stronger way.
Dheepan is certainly one of the best titles that I have seen in this festival, and Audiard does not disappoint. His latest offering is as power packed as A Prophet was.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for the 26th year.)