Cannes 2014: 'Spartacus & Cassandra' review

★★★★☆
A real gem hidden deep in the Cannes' ACID sidebar, Spartacus & Cassandra (2014) follows two Roma children in France coming to terms with the fact that their parents - and their living situation - may not have their best interests at heart. At four years old Spartacus was begging on the streets. At five he started school. At seven he moved from Romania to France. At eight, he was stealing car radios, and at ten he was escaping from a hostel for disadvantaged kids. At the age of thirteen, when we meet the young energetic scamp for the first time, French authorities are deciding whether to put him and his sister Cassandra into care, away from his friends and family but perhaps to a brighter future.

Director Ioanis Nuguet gets right under the skin of the urbane, dirty but somewhat adventurous lifestyle of these children. They live in a circus tent in the outskirts of Paris, and the streets are their playground. But the poverty they live under is clear and seemingly inescapable. Litter and waste is everywhere, and the kids are barely able to clean or wash. One touching scene sees Spartacus round a schoolmate's apartment where, almost out of pity, he's offered as basic an amenity as a shower to clean in. Spartacus must grow up fast in this world, and the problems of his situation weigh down on him hard. He and his sister have the choice of staying with their parents or moving into foster care. His mother, apparently mentally disabled, sells flowers on the streets, while his father appears to be a troupe leader.

Spartacus, even at thirteen, understands that moving away might improve his life chances, but leave his parents with little to live for. The parents clearly love their kids, but the basic reason they give to why don't want to lose the children is that they've brought them up to this point - and that argument is tragically misjudged. In discussions with a French family lawyer, Spartacus' maturity is enough that he even acts as interpreter to his parents. His father believes that his children "aren't French," so the authorities have no right to step in. But no matter how much he loves his children he and his wife are not capable of bringing up the kids. The children's realisation of this, suggested very subtly into the documentary, is heartbreaking. The children are fascinating subjects, and Nuguet shoots with an impressionistic verité and a style that is at once both lyrical and stark. There's poverty, but there's also an thrill in their childhood situation that makes their life seem much more fulfilled than perhaps many of their more comfortable contemporaries.

Despite what appears to be large gaps in time between scenes, Nuguet managed to balance the narrative in a way that never loses its grasp on what's happening. Even when things do start to look bright, it's with a melancholic air, as the children come under the care of Camille, a Roma trapeze artist living in the countryside. Spartacus ponders "I don't know if we have the right to feel this," as while they live better, their drunk father begs homeless on the street and their mother is being physically abused. When the kids return to visit them briefly, they don't know what to say, so dumbstruck that, without their children, their parents are simply destitute. With this week's EU elections, the film makes an important point about the responsibilities of other countries in embracing fellow European cultures, as it is when the Roma community is most isolated that the outcome to Spartacus & Cassandra's story would be least positive.

The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.

Ed Frankl

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