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Vinasithamby (left) and Jesuthasan portray refugees who pretend to be daughter and father in Dheepan.

Getting on with one way of life in Dheepan

Jul 29, 2016 5:50 AM

IMMIGRANT story, social drama, crime thriller. Dheepan is all this and more - including a narrative with dialogue that's almost entirely in Tamil. The film, directed by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005) takes place in a grim housing project on the outskirts of Paris, where armed thugs patrol the rooftops and a peaceful existence is hard to come by for new arrivals seeking to blend in with the local community.

Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithanby) are three strangers in a strange land, refugees from the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka where Dheepan, whose real name is Sivadhasan, has been a soldier for the Tamil Tigers.

The cause is lost and now he's on the run. The only way out is to join forces with two random strangers - a young woman and a nine-year-old girl whose parents have been killed - and assume the identity of a dead family, travelling on their passports to France where they intend to seek asylum.

Out of those grim beginnings comes a ray of hope, although it doesn't appear that way at first. Despite being obviously out of sync with their fake stories and with each other, they succeed in getting temporary status and are sent to live in the northern suburb of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of immigrants from North Africa who are more assimilated and culturally entrenched than the newcomers.

Dheepan is assigned a job as a caretaker to several of the buildings in Le Pré. He's given a specific time to clean up at one building in particular, which serves as a clubhouse of sorts to a gang of drug dealers. At night, the building is a hive of activity, with comings and goings by well-heeled customers.

Meanwhile, Dheepan and his fake family struggle to fit in with the community - and with each other. He's moody and intense and refrains from socialising, but gets on with the job, determined to gain acceptance and become a fixture in the neighbourhood. He even earns a grudging respect from Yalini, who bemoans his lack of a sense of humour. "Even in Tamil you're not funny," she says.

Yalini also gets a job cooking and caring for Habib (Faouzi Bensaidi), an old and infirm gang boss and Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), his young turk of a lieutenant who oozes menace and barks orders at fellow gang members but treats her with uncommon respect. Yalini is both terrified of, and fascinated by, him.

Dheepan's struggle to achieve a sense of belonging lies at the core of the film, but peace is frustratingly elusive. The past catches up just as he is settling in - and the festering situation in Le Pré flares up into something close to the conflict zone he is all too familiar with: he will need to fight for the peace he desperately needs.

Dheepan, written by Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain and Audiard, is undermined at the end by an unlikely turn of events and a sudden burst of violence, but that doesn't detract from the convincing performance by novice actor Jesuthasan, who drew on his own experience as a former child soldier for the Tamil Tigers to portray the title character. For him, and the character he plays, the chance for a second act is more than he could have hoped for.

Rating: B

  • Dheepan will be screened at The Projector on Saturday July 30 at 8 pm.