Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 28, 2010 7:04 am 
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Romeo and Juliet, across the Channel

Illegal immigration is the subject of this ironically titled film. But whatever generalizations it has to make are embodied in beautifully realized and touching characters and a specific story, which combines one of France's ablest and most experienced actors, Vincent Lindon, with a young Kurdish newcomer, Firat Ayverdi. Ayverdi plays the role of Bilal, a 17-year-old Iraq-born Kurd who needs to get from France to England to meet his sweetheart.

Welcome begins with an intense focus on the border crossers Bilal is with. He has come a long way on his own, hanging under railway cars. Here he learns that won't work because the trains go too fast. He has to pay a handler to be hidden with others in a cargo truck. Images of the border lit up at night at the huge interchange near Calais, with dozens of huge cargo trucks slowly moving back and forth, are both beautiful and terrifying, reminiscent of the opening sequence of Arnaud des Pallières' Adieu. The sense of being at the mercy of vast forces is overwhelming. The cargo truck escape attempt fails both for Bilal and for the group of other young Kurds with him because Bilal can't stand to keep a plastic bag over his head during the customs inspection to avoid setting off the carbon dioxide detectors. He's held and released in Calais with the others, in legal limbo, with nowhere to stay, caught in the "jungle" of other illegals hoping to get to England.

Bilal, we gradually learn, is an excellent athlete and has now decided to try to go it alone and swim the channel. He begins visiting the municipal swimming pool, where he pays Simon (Lindon), a swim coach, to teach him how to do the crawl and train for a long swim. Their interchanges are made rough and simple by the fact that Bilal speaks no French and Simon's English is limited. Simon is lonely and stressed out because his wife Marion (a soulful Audrey Dana) has left him. He also feels useless because a promising career as a competitive swimmer stopped short years ago, leaving him with this mediocre job. Locally the immigrants wandering in legal limbo are looked down on, and you can get harassed by police and subject to legal action for in any way helping them. There is an executive officer in the local constabulary specifically charged with seeing that these rules are enforced. Simon shares the general indifference to the young illegals' plight, but takes a liking to the bright-eyed, highly motivated Bilal, and soon realizes what his training goal is.

Marion runs an on-the-street soup kitchen that helps the illegals. She obviously sympathizes with them and for doing so is harassed by cops herself. After taking in Bilal and a friend for a night early on, Simon gradually warms to their plight and also realizes that his actions may make Marion look on him more favorably. He is soon hassled by police due to a nasty neighbor who rats on him. But this only strengthens his resolve to help the boy and draws them closer. Meanwhile Lioret seamlessly deepens our understanding of Bilal with a swift succession of understated scenes. The youth was a soccer champion and runner back home and dreams of trying out for Manchester United. His girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi) is with her family in London, who are in the restaurant business. Her father disapproves of her relationship with Bilal and an arranged marriage with somebody else is in the offing. Simon continues to be impressed by Bilal's single-minded devotion. Bilal and Mina are like Romeo and Juliet, separated by the English Channel.

Bilal is making great progress in the pool, but his situation otherwise continues to be extremely dicey. Mina can rarely speak to him on the phone and he's mostly on the street with other Kurds, one of whom is out to get him for causing them to be caught in the truck. Things get better between Marion and Simon but more and more urgent for Bilal, who's now trying longer swims in the Channel itself wearing a wet suit. News comes that Mina is to be married off shortly. She sends a despairing message to Bilal that it's hopeless and he should not try to come. It's winter and Simon urges him not to try now, that it's too dangerous, and he should seek a way to remain in France legally. Lindon is typically subtle and convincing as a man in crisis drawn out of himself. Firat Ayverdi is an understated player with a strong natural presence.

The final scenes of Welcome are deeply touching. I never thought seeing Manchester United on a TV screen could make me cry. This is a strong, vivid little film that tells its story with deft strokes and authentic atmosphere. The ideas of swimming the Channel, the star-crossed lovers, and the emotionally stressed grown-up who finds a sense of values through a youth are simple and standard enough, but Lioret's filmmaking and the acting are so good it all works, and the script by Lioret, Olivier Adam and Emmanuel Courcol is idiomatic and natural. The injustice and confusion of immigration policies are made extremely clear without ever resorting to a single moment of generalization.

Welcome opened in Paris on March 11, 2009 to universal critical acclaim. Its critics rating on Allociné is 3.3 with a score of 88 points. The film won the Lumière Award for Best film; one César nomination (Best Cinematography) and two awards at Berlin. It was shown in March 2010 as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, the series sponsored jointly by uniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and shown to the public at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center, New York. Lioret's previous film, Don't Worry, I'm Fine/Je vais bien, ne t'en fais pas, was included in the Rendez-Vous series in 2007.

P.s.: Welcome opened in NYC May 7, 2010 and became a NY Times recommended film via Stephen Holden's review.

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