In 1998, successive attempts to forcibly expel Semira Adamu from Belgium led to her death at the hands of police officers. Adamu had fled Nigeria to evade a forced marriage to a man 45 years her senior who already had four wives. She also feared being beaten to death by her family, which had arranged the marriage. The destination of Adamu’s flight to asylum was Berlin, but a stopover launched her confrontation with Belgian authorities. Ultimately, she was brought onboard a flight to Lagos, Nigeria, in shackles, and her resistance prompted officers to stuff her face into a cushion, to quiet her, they would explain at their subsequent trial, so as not to disturb the other passengers. Adamu thus suffocated; she was twenty years old. While her death stirred debate in Belgium and forced the resignations of Interior Minister Louis Tobback and Luc Tempels, chief of security at Zaventem, only five of the eleven officers involved faced criminal charges. One was acquitted; the other four received suspended sentences.
It is with this incident in mind that a gripping, powerful film, Illégal, was made in Belgium, with additional support from Luxembourg and France. It won the Directors’ Fortnight Prize at Cannes for writer-director Olivier Masset-Depasse, whose wife, Anne Coesens (best actress, Palm Springs), superbly, with utmost conviction and emotional fluency, plays Tania, a former French teacher in her Russian homeland who lives illegally in Brussels, under constant threat of exposure and deportation, with her young son, Ivan. One day, when the two are not together, Tania is arrested and sent to a detention center pending some legal resolution of her situation, most likely, deportation. To protect Ivan, Tania refuses to disclose her identity.
This is a grim and somber film. While it lacks the dazzling complexity of the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence (2008), also from Belgium, about the misfortunes of Albanian immigrants, it is almost as urgent and exceedingly atmospheric. Its mainspring, though, is the terrific lead performance by Coesens, which her husband and his editor, Damien Keyeux, succeed in keeping from unbalancing the film. Tania’s humanity takes center-screen; Coesens is no phony-baloney Meryl Streep demanding and getting attention for herself. Indeed, the material seriously matters to Masset-Depasse, Coesens and the film’s wonderful cinematographer, Tommaso Fiorilli, whose constrained lighting and subdued colors seem to ache as much for release and freedom as does Tania. Illégal’s unity is clear and compelling.
Perhaps the pivotal relationship in the film is that between Tania and Aïssa, an inmate at the detention center who is repeatedly beaten and brutalized by the police—be forewarned: this is not an easy movie to take—because she continually resists deportation. The two women become compatriots, realistically, by guarded degrees, with Esse Lawson giving an excellent performance in a harrowing role. Aïssa, a black African, cannot help but recall Semira Adamu and her fate; but here also Masset-Depasse applies restraint, shrewdly gauging that, although the viewer’s association of Aïssa with Adamu benefits the film, the viewer’s identification of the fictional character with the actual victim would destroy it.
Overall, documentary realism describes the style of the film. The narrative, because of the prolongation of Tania’s ordeal, subtly shifts to melodrama; but the style remains consistent, conveying that it is this woman’s life, not the film which imagines it, that is becoming “melodramatic.” Hers is an increasingly extreme and horrific situation.
But hold onto your hope; the finale achieves in full the most moving cinematic reunion of mother and son since David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
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