You can tell you’re early in the evolution of a society’s acceptance of a minority group when most of its movies about that subculture star people from the dominant culture, focusing on how their eyes are opened or their lives enriched by their contact with someone from the minority. That template fits most of the movies I’ve seen about the illegal immigrants pouring into the U.S. and Europe these days, and Welcome is no exception. But it’s better than most, a modestly scaled movie that’s a minor success.
A little too pat and simplistic, Welcome is not nearly as good as Laurent Cantet’s emotionally raw and complex The Class or Jacques Audiard’s searing A Prophet., but it’s a whole lot better than the overpraised The Visitor, which was to illegal immigrants what Gentleman’s Agreement was to Jews and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to African-Americans.
The main character in Welcome is Simon Calmat (Mademoiselle Chambon star Vincent Lindon), a sad-eyed former swimming champ who makes a living teaching water aerobics and swimming lessons at a public pool in Calais. In the midst of a divorce from a wife he’s still crazy about, Simon has slid pretty deep into major depression when Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a bright-eyed Kurdish kid from Iraq, pops up in his pool.
Bilal has emigrated illegally from Iraq to Calais in a difficult and dangerous journey that included a stint on a cargo truck, his head inside a plastic bag so his breathing won’t activate the sensors installed to detect the presence of carbon dioxide. He manages to get 4,000 kilometers from home, but his goal is the other side of the English Channel, where the girl he loves has recently moved with her family. He asks Simon to teach him to swim, figuring that’s his best shot for getting to England.
Calais has erected a thicket of barriers to discourage illegal immigrants. At first, Simon seems to have done the same, but Bilal breaks down his resistance. Simon sees himself in the boy, identifying first with his athleticism and then with his romanticism. And as the two grow closer, Simon takes more risks to help the boy achieve his dream.
We learn a lot more about Simon’s life than we do Bilal’s (we never see where Bilal sleeps or get a sense of how he spends his time when he isn’t with Simon), but their stories are given almost equal emotional weight. What’s more, letting Bilal into his life doesn’t magically transform Simon or solve any of his problems, and Simon’s help is not enough to help Bilal triumph over all the obstacles piled up in his path. Paired with Lindon’s and Ayverdi’s emotional transparency and both characters’ fundamental decency, that humanistic orientation and relatively realistic story arc give this heartfelt movie some emotional heft. But in the end, what resonates most is the political context in which the filmmakers situate this twist on a father-son melodrama.
To surface the dehumanizing brutality routinely encountered by the political and economic refugees who are flooding the Western world and largely ignored by the rest of us, we hear both from and about cops who arrest immigrants and the people who help them. We also see several examples of a perhaps even more chilling trend: the collusion of private citizens, like the xenophobic neighbor whose welcome mat earns a sardonic look from Simon and gives the movie its title.
All that demonization and repression reanimates the ghost of another evil time in France’s not-so-distant past—and our own. As Simon’s ex puts it, after trying to stop a supermarket security guard from ejecting a couple of immigrants while Simon and several other customers watched mutely: “You know what banning people from stores means? Want me to buy you a history book?”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.