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France Has Nominated 'Les Misérables' To The Oscars — No, Not That One

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new movie called "Les Miserables" is not a musical and is not based on Victor Hugo. But critic Bob Mondello says fans of the novel and the show will hear contemporary echoes. Here's his review of the French contender for the international film Oscar.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The impoverished immigrant kids of Montfermeil are cheering and draping themselves in the French flag at the start, blending joyfully into the celebration of France's 2018 victory in soccer's World Cup. As they sing along to the Marseillaise, their dark skin and immigrant features seem to have been embraced as an integral part of French culture; when they get back to the housing projects in Montfermeil, not so much. Here they're regarded as potential suspects by both the Muslim Brotherhood, which tries to teach them respect for their elders...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...And even more so by the plainclothes police patrol headed by a racist loudmouth the residents refer to as the pink pig. His team has just been joined by a new guy who he's hazing with questions. Know why this street's named for Victor Hugo?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Stephane does know.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

DAMIEN BONNARD: (As Stephane, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Because he wrote "Les Miserables" here, though he just Googled it. This earns him a crack about being an intellectual, soon forgotten as the cops deal with the neighborhood's modern-day miserables - prostitutes, delinquents using drones to peep into apartments...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...And one unusual bunch of thuggish guys with bats from a self-styled Gypsy circus who are angrily confronting residents. The cops discover that what they want is the return of Johnny (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Their friend Johnny?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: No, Johnny, a lion cub.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: We want him back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: It seems like a comic setup, but things go dark quickly, as the cops antagonize half the neighborhood searching for the cub, then they nab a suspect in front of a mob, and that incident turns ugly.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: And that's when they hear the drone overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Director Ladj Ly - who grew up in Montfermeil, was born in Mali and has himself been on the wrong side of the law - manages the almost unthinkable in "Les Miserables." He's even-handed. Confronted with events that Victor Hugo would surely recognize - disenfranchised kids rebelling against authority, a whole population that resents the state, state functionaries who must nonetheless keep the peace - he makes sure you know exactly how much skin everyone has in the game, and he doesn't rig the game. So when tragedy and anarchy seem to have been avoided, you relax, only to realize the film's not over.

"Les Miserables" is Ly's feature film debut, cast largely with nonactors from Montfermeil. You might say they're modern-day Cosettes and Thenardiers. Ly has previously made documentaries, and "Les Miserables" feels as authentic as a documentary, which should give everyone who sees it pause.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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