If your faith in humankind has been taking some hits recently (inevitable if you keep up with the news), run, don't walk, to SIFF's Uptown Theater. Opening Friday, Nov. 11, Aki Kaurismäki's marvelous Le Havre offers many pleasures, chief among them a dream of a world full of moving reunions, communal connections and celebrations, fraternité and égalité.
This droll, warmhearted comedy unfolds in a city named "haven"—in particular, in an old quarter where fishermen have turned smugglers for lack of any catch, colorfully idiosyncratic "types" are always on about something in the local bar, and the tiny bakery and the grocery store are ringers for street sets in a hundred French movies. And all these environs are bathed in color and light that exists only in the movies: crisp yet pearlescent pastels and richer shades, illumination designed to spotlight faces and places so as to banish all shadows, any hint of irony or hidden agenda.
Marcel Marx (André Wilms) shines shoes, claiming that it's one of the last professions permitting closeness to people—and also averring that it follows the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed with a name that conjures up French cinematic nobility and working-class faith, Marcel looks like a noble, grufty old lion, the kind of affectless French hero who's been places, has the wisdom to prove it, but is content with his corner of the world—the type incarnated and immortalized by Jean Gabin. At the same time that his beloved wife (Kati Outinen)—named after Arletty, Marcel Carné's goddess in Children of Paradise—is hospitalized with terminal cancer, he takes in a black boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), on the run from immigration authorities. As Marcel intrigues on Idrissa's behalf, he crosses swords with a deliciously deadpan cop (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), uniformed in a spiffy little dark-blue hat and trenchcoat. Oh, and there's also a sweetheart of a dog called Laika, after that intrepid Russian space pioneer.
What follows is a quietly exhilarating fairy tale of working class solidarity, so powerful it crosses all borders, ignoring obstacles of class, color, nationality, law, money, meanness, even death. Lovers reunite, a white-haired "Elvis" returns to rock the house, a lost child finds home. Sure, there's one fly in all this milk of human kindness, a neighbor who twice rats Idrissa out—but how can we count him a serious threat, seeing as how he's played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, once a lost boy himself in The 400 Blows?
No, Le Havre's not realistic, never means to be. This small miracle of a movie celebrates community and democracy, in forms so pure they could only thrive in the bright, warm light of Aki Kaurismäki's imagination, a better haven than Zuccotti Park or Happy Valley.
Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Murphy