Illegal: Laudable but Creaky Look at Undocumented Immigrants


Laudable in intent if creaky in execution, Olivier Masset-Depasse’s second feature awkwardly combines a scalding condemnation of Europe’s immigrant detention centers with maternal melodrama. Tania (Anne Coesens), a Russian living in Belgium with her 13-year-old son, Ivan, is sent to a stygian holding pen for undocumented immigrant women and children after she fails to produce the proper identification during a random police check. A prisoner without a name (she refuses to tell the authorities what it is) or fingerprints (she seared all of her digits’ pads with an iron in the film’s prelude), steel-willed Tania slowly starts to connect with her Chilean and Malian cellmates, who, less fully developed characters than constructs, are almost as anonymous as our heroine. In between enduring the bureaucratic sadism administered by guards who appear to be the Wallonian descendants of the prison matrons in Caged!, Tania calls Ivan, now staying with a family friend, exhorting him not to become the errand boy of the local Russian mobster. The scenes of Tania cradling the pay-phone receiver typify Coesens’s fiery commitment to the part, but Illegal’s plausibility is strained in its final quarter when the mother-martyr thread overtakes Masset-Depasse’s jeremiad against injustice. Blunt, loud, and showboaty, Illegal suffers even more when compared with another recent Liège-set film about the horrors faced by paperless immigrants: the Dardennes’ Lorna’s Silence.