A prolonged stay in a Belgian immigration detention center causes more than a few chinks in the armor of a strong-willed Russian femme in “Illegal,” Olivier Masset-Depasse’s fascinating study of perseverance in the face of subhuman treatment. Walloon helmer’s soph outing is almost entirely carried by ace actress Anne Coesens, who impressively portrays the immigrant’s tenacity even as she must keep much of her personality hidden. Fests with a sociopolitical focus will lap this up, but its topicality and overall quality could also inspire some theatrical sales.
Tania (Coesens), a former French teacher from Russia working as an illegal cleaner in Belgium, is stopped for a routine check by the police and is arrested and detained, though her 14-year-old son Ivan (Alexandre Gontcharov) manages to escape at her insistence. Bulk of the pic is set in a claustrophobic and rundown immigration detention center for women and children, where Tania refuses to give her name. Without a known identity — she’s seared her fingertips with an iron to avoid having her prints taken — it is impossible for authorities to legally proceed with an expulsion.
But Tania’s indeterminate stay in the center is no vacation. Constantly worried about her son, who’s found refuge with a family member but who’s showing signs of teenage rebellion, she also has to deal with the frustration of not knowing what her future will be and the increasingly unfriendly behavior of the frustrated authorities. The brutal treatment of her peers, including a strong-willed African woman (an impressive Esse Lawson) who repeatedly disappears and is black-and-blue upon her return, foreshadow the grueling things to come.
Because she must withhold Tania’s identity, Coesens has the thankless task of standing up to prolonged questioning and maltreatment without being able to reveal much of her character. But the actress, a relative unknown who worked with Masset-Depasse on his first pic, “Cages,” is up to the task — and greatly aided by the scribe-helmer’s decision to offer at least one clear emotional hook: the mother-son relationship, which mainly transpires via desperate phone calls.
While the pic’s biggest asset it its strong central perf, just as important is the way it reps the heartless treatment of illegal immigrants in Western democracies. A particularly insightful scene shows a guard at the center (Christelle Cornil) asking Tania whether staying in Belgium is really worth all this trouble. Because Masset-Depasse expertly uses the tools of fiction to look at reality, pic also can be emotionally draining (except for the much-deserved but highly unlikely ending).
The helmer has dropped the pretty pictures and heavy-handed symbolism of “Cages” for a documentary-like mise-en-scene here, which suits the subject and its urgency perfectly. Camera is mostly handheld, with strong use of establishing shots and closeups, while the transfer from 16mm gives the pic an appropriately jagged look. Production design and sound work are strong, though the score by Andre Dziezuk and Marc Mergen is sometimes too insistent.