Shot almost entirely in a giant metal container, “Stowaways” is an almost unbearably claustrophobic tale about a motley crew of refugees trying to make their way illegally into Canada by hiding out on a container ship. The pic, co-directed and co-written by Quebec’s Denis Chouinard and Switzerland’s Nicolas Wadimoff, is a gripping, ultimately powerful piece of socially conscious filmmaking. But it is also tremendously depressing and unrelentingly bleak, and the uniformly harsh tone of the drama will make it a tough slog for most auds. It will elicit some interest from arthouse crowds in French Canada and Europe after its fest run and, with some scenes of brutality snipped, will likely be a draw in upscale tube slots.
Six people meet at a harbor in an unnamed European city (seemingly in Southern France) and are herded into an empty steel container by a smuggler, with harbor security guards in hot pursuit. In their rush to escape the law, Dora (Simona Maicanescu) and her young daughter, Svetlana (Christelle Sabas), lose all the food they had brought for the long trip across the Atlantic. The Russian refugee Roman (Anton Kouznetsov) sparks the first of many confrontations when he unsuccessfully attempts to have Dora and her child banned from the trip due to their lack of provisions.
Once out at sea, the tyrannical Roman begins setting up his own space in the container by putting boxes between him and the rest of the illegal passengers. The first crisis occurs when the ship is forced to make an unexpected stop in Liverpool due to engine difficulties, with the stowaways quickly realizing the delay is going to put extra strain on their food supplies.
The refugess freak out in a big way when a second mechanical breakdown occurs , in the middle of the ocean. Bitter fights break out over the remaining food. In an incredibly brutal scene, Roman, the worst of the bunch, gives Dora some tiny morsels of food in return for allowing him to violently have sex with her.
The other refugees finally attack the Russian, almost killing him. In a last-ditch effort to stave off their hunger, they manage to burst a small hole in the container’s iron door, and the thin teenager Sandu (Ovidiu Balan) is able to slip out and make his way to the kitchen. But he unwittingly leaves a footprint that the ship authorities discover. The captain and crew round up the stowaways and show little mercy. Pic’s ending is notably grim.
Chouinard and Wadimoff, both first-time feature helmers, have succeeded in crafting a moving, always engrossing pic that puts a human face on the frequent news stories about desperate refugees. But the film would have been even more effective if the writer-directors had added more nuance to their portraits of the six characters.
Perfs are all quite good, particularly Kouznetsov as the Russian bad guy and Maicanescu as the despondent Dora. Pic is shot almost entirely in extremely tight quarters by Sylvain Brault, creating a near-suffocating sense of claustrophobia, and American avant-garde rock musician Bill Laswell’s driving world-beat soundtrack is a great asset.