In Ladj Ly’s explosive “Les Miserables,” a dark, violent story of human suffering and oppression explores the devastation that rocked sections of Paris in Montfermeil, a commune in the suburbs of Paris, where Victor Hugo wrote his 1862 novel, hence the title.
Montfermeil’s three week riots in November of 2005, that engulfed that area and spread Paris wide, were the Parisian version of Los Angeles, 1965 Watts riots, an explosive upheaval that threw African, North African and the regurgitation of poor French discontent into one boiling pot of fury.
French-West African filmmaker Ladj Ly who was born in Mali and raised in Montfermeil, uses the historic event as a backdrop to the story of three jaded police officers of a special inner city strike force: Chris, Alexis Manenti, as a hard-nosed, semi-literate police thug, French African Gwada (Djibil Zonga), and their late arriving inductee from the Parisian branch Corporal Ruiz, played by ‘Dunkirk’s Damien Bonnard. Ruiz is the “nice guy” of the film, who endures the teasing of the others because of his stoic manner and gestures of kindness to the people of the street.
Rising out of the cloud of black and Arabic kids who spend their days kicking a ball and stealing from fruit stands, is Issa (Issa Perica) who ignites the plot by stealing a lion cub from a cheap traveling circus, run by thuggish Roma gypsies, who threaten a bloody street war with the Black Muslims, unless they help find the cub.
Mid way, the band of street kids, in their early teens, have now grown in number and have become restless, as the sun heats up and the day moves on.
By late day the friction increases and the cops, and the French “Mafia” they work with, focus on the Muslims, the real peacekeepers here, to find the lion cub before the cup boils over.
When a fateful confrontation explodes, the sensitive Gwada, blinded by tear gas, accidentally fires a Flash-Ball gun, smashing Issa in the face and nearly killing him. Hard-nosed Chris wants to leave him and sweep it all away, but Ruiz ignores the order, and takes the boy to a hospital.
Unknown to the cops, another boy, “Buzz” (Al-Hassan Ly) on a higher level income in the ghetto, who daily employs a kid’s drone, has filmed the incident from high above, opening another level to the story that leaves the trio open to punishment. The story escalates now, breathtakingly mixing the hunt for the lion cub and desperate moves to recover the incriminating tape.
By now, Issa, a talented young actor with remarkable presence, is left with a scarred and disfigured face, and suddenly becomes a dark hero to the growing mob of boys. The final scene is difficult to watch, and all players, cops and boys, occupy a deserted building for a bloody showdown.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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