Another persistent subject of the contemporary documentary zeitgeist are the lives of people--particularly children--who squat in the ruins of post-Capitalism. It would be easy to think of these kinds of films as social problem films, or at the very least as a kind of "poverty porn," but that would do the best of them a disservice. The good ones mark the lives of specific human beings, however desperate their lives, and let those lives illuminate more universal concerns. Spartacus and Cassandra (2014, directed by Ioanis Nuguet) is one such film. It chronicles the lives of two young Roma children struggling to live in Paris with parents whose basic competence to be parents in the first place is deeply suspect. This is a closely observant film that knows the power of an image and how to play with images without losing the integrity of the narrative. The end result is a highly aestheticized form of social realism.
The eponymous Spartacus and Cassandra are a brother and sister, age 13 and 16, who have been living a marginal existence on the outskirts of Paris for five years. They came to the city with their parents, who hoped for a better life away from Romania. Spartacus, the younger sibling, tells us in the opening voice over that he was stealing car stereos and escaping from youth shelters before he was ten. Cassandra, for part, is struggling with school and with the looming prospect of adulthood. Their parents are a wreck. Their father is an alcoholic who thinks that taking the kids on another migration with solve his problems. Their mother appears to be mentally ill. She attempts to make a small living selling flowers in the street. There's obviously love between the family members, but the children don't live with their parents. They live with Camille, a Roma circus performer who runs an improvised big top. She's the main adult in their lives, and mediates with the social services who think--rightly, I think--that the kids would be better off being placed in a more stable family setting. Most of the movie chronicles the children's efforts to stay with their parents, but even Spartacus knows that it's ultimately futile. The best they can hope for is to stay with Camille, who turns out to have property in the countryside, and to endure the legacy of their parents. That legacy--neglect and irresponsibility--separates the children from their parents more effectively than the social services ever could. The phone call between Cassandra and her mother near the end of the film is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. It's the dark verso of Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story.
This film isn't coy about squalor. It's a portrait of extreme poverty that reflects not just the conditions of its subjects, but also the conditions of the world in which they live. This is clearly a world in collapse, discarded by the dominant culture and left behind to rot. There's a political dimension to this. Europe has its anti-immigrant politics, too, and although they generally focus on Muslim immigrants these days, the traditional target of anti-immigrant sentiment everywhere in Europe, even France, has been the Roma. It's an ugly world. The film doesn't shy away from this ugliness--just as it doesn't shy away from the fact that the parents of the kids are completely incompetent to raise them--but it doesn't always linger on this. There's a lyrical passage mid-film in which the kids pick flowers wit their mother. This seems normal until the film shows why they're doing it. Then it becomes pathetic. There's a lot of this kind of dichotomy. The fact that this is organized around a big top tent and circus culture gives the film a Fellini-esque veneer, one that vanishes completely when depicting the bureaucracy of family court or Spartacus's struggles with school. This last is a familiar trope in this kind of documentary: Spartacus takes out his rage at the world as a thick-headed toxic masculinity.
The form the film takes follows its function. It's keenly observational most of the time, but even when it's observing, its aware of how it composes the film frame. It's beautifully shot. The connective tissue sometimes veers into freeform abstraction, in which transitions between scenes are likely to connect them with flash cut impressionist images rather than a blank-faced invisible cut you might expect from such a film. When the film moves into the countryside, it becomes as much a landscape film as an observational film. There's a touch of visual spiritualism in these scenes, as if they're trying to reach some kind of universal archetype of childhood.
Miraculously, Spartacus and Cassandra escape the squalor. Near the end of the film, they've moved to Camille's country house where they have their own rooms and a stable environment. The circus is still around, but instead of a make-shift urban big top, there is instead a trapeze set up in a barn. The through-line of the story comes to its ultimate fruition here, as Spartacus and Cassandra, who have stubbornly clung to their family, end up having to let it go in order to thrive. It's an anti-family values movie, or maybe it's a movie where found family is more important to a better tomorrow than the family into which one is born. This idea is sad, but it's also a reflection of a world and a culture where found families are becoming more and more normal. This is a haunting film.
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