Thursday, December 30, 2010

Expanding Your Cinema Horizons- La Haine

Poverty, race, immigration, and violence are issues commonly dealt with in American films. Our history as the land of the "melting pot" make issues of race and class based conflict sometimes seem like an American issue. After all these issues are mainly urban issues and no one usually associates cities like London and Paris with the ghettos seen in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. However, in reality these issues have been rampant in the Paris suburban ghettos, called banlieues, since the late 1980s. Specifically, the area of Clichy-sous-Bois has been home to several episodes of rioting and extreme violence in the mid-1990s and 2000s. Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film La Haine, which translates to "the Hate", details these urban struggles with a subtlety that American films on the subject lack, making La Haine not just a movie about French issues, but one that addresses it on a global scale.

The movie centers on the relationship between three friends of different backgrounds, Vinz (Jewish), Said (Muslim), and Hubert (African), as they live out a day inside and outside the banlieue. All three are angry over the beating one of their friends took from police the night before and the condition of their friend and potential retaliation is a constant theme throughout the film. Vinz, played by the excellent Vincent Cassel, finds a police officer's gun lost amidst rioting and the gun drags all three main characters deeper into the specter of violence the banlieue presents. However, unlike most films on this subject Kassovitz does an excellent job staying away from heavy-handed messages. All three characters waver from violent outbursts and bad decisions to moments of real self-reflection and all three actors do an excellent job of making their characters seem like real people instead of convenient personalities to push a single message. Kassovitz also journeys away from the banlieue into the heart of Paris to show how it isn't necessarily the place that has made them this way, but the attitude of the nation. Kassovitz stays away from easy answers to the questions the movie poses and the climatic ending is very fitting, and based on a real life event.

Outside of the message, the film is beautifully shot in black and white and the cinematography brings out the bleakness of the locale. Kassovitz also uses many different shooting angles and techniques that keep the movie interesting and provide great views of the people and buildings that make up their lives. The film is also dripping with the American hip-hop and gangster culture that permeated France in the mid 1990s. The characters seem like they would fit in in any American city and the mix of French traditionalism and American hip-hop culture produce some awesome set pieces and references, including this mix where a DJ blasting to the whole ghetto samples KRS-ONE and Edith Piaf.

La Haine is a wonderfully shot movie with deep and interesting characters, action, and amazing set pieces that tells the story of urban struggles. It may not have the pedigree of a Do the Right Thing, but it is brilliantly acted and does not force the message down your throat. It is one of the best foreign language films of the last twenty years and is a must watch for any film lover.

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