The first images in “Nadia and the Hippos” are, fittingly, of giant traffic jams in Paris caused by a transportation strike; in many ways, watching this Gallic pic is akin to being stuck in interminable gridlock. It’s not an uninteresting trip, with understated moments that pack real emotional power, but helmer Dominique Cabrera never succeeds in her attempt to merge the political and the personal. The small-scale human dramas are much more affecting and memorable than the endless political discussions, which often feel like Left-wing Unionism 101. Pic will likely elicit limited arthouse action on home turf, but the French political issues at the heart of the yarn will scare off most international auds.
Tale is set in December 1995, in the middle of a giant transportation strike that has paralyzed the country. Parisians have to walk, cycle or brave insanely crowded streets to wend their way to work, while the striking rail workers mount picket lines throughout the city.
Nadia (Ariane Ascaride) arrives on foot at the Austerlitz train station with her 6-month-old son, Christopher (Najd Hamou-Medja), in tow. She tells a group of strikers she is looking for a train worker named Gerard. Only gradually does she reveal that the guy she’s seeking is the baby’s father, who she hasn’t seen since the kid was born. It turns out that she caught sight of the father on the TV news the night before while watching a report on the labor dispute.
Train-company strikers Serge (Thierry Fremont), Jean-Paul (Philippe Fretun) and Claire (Marilyne Canto) offer to assist by taking Nadia with them as they visit various groups of striking workers around the city. Pic chronicles the foursome’s night of travel, swinging between little personal dramas and big, union-themed chats. Out of the blue, Jean-Paul declares his love for Nadia, while — almost at the same time — Serge is bitterly attacking longtime colleague Claire for being cold and repressed.
Pic derives its resonance from an almost doculike immediacy, in large part thanks to the use of real-life railroad workers for many of the group scenes. Cabrera has also created an intriguing character in Nadia, a sullen, angry welfare mom who is both irritating and endearing. But the emotional confrontations often feel contrived. Worse, the central plot development concerning the identity of the baby’s father is a bit of a stretch.
Ascaride does a good job as the woman at the center of the tale, her expressive range allowing her to move convincingly from raging incoherence to tenderness. Other lead thesps are equally strong, bringing their characters’ small dramas to life with surprising force. Pic is shot almost entirely at night, in dark settings, and uses little music.
Title refers to a small hippopotamus ornament hanging inside windshield of the van. It’s a fairly obtuse metaphor, with heavyweight beast meant to rep old-fashioned, nonsuperficial culture.