Ships have taken on metaphorical cargo in such recent films as “Captain Phillips” and “All Is Lost.” In both they represent the economic toll on people caused by the leviathan known as globalization. Such is the case in Quebec director Frédérick Pelletier’s impressive debut feature, a stark, touching tale about the common humanity that connects people from alien backgrounds, and the institutionalized inhumanity that drives them apart. It opens Wednesday at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Like “Captain Phillips,” “Diego Star” dramatizes the disconnect between the corporate world, as represented by international shipping companies, and the disenfranchised Third World people whom they ignore or exploit. Traoré (Issaka Sawadogo, in a nuanced, moving performance) is no Somali pirate, as in “Phillips,” but a mechanic from the Ivory Coast working on the Russian-owned cargo ship of the title. But it seems like those working on the ships don’t get a much better deal than those who hijack them.
As the film begins, Traoré heatedly warns his supervisor that the ship’s engine is worn out and ready to blow. And so it does, and they limp into a nearby Canadian port where the
ship will be repaired and the authorities will investigate the reason for the breakdown. Once there Traoré must decide whether to inform the authorities of the abusive conditions on the ship or stay quiet and avoid trouble. He opts for the former, and learns that no one likes a
Meanwhile, he and the other crewmen have been given lodgings in local homes as they bide their time in the wintry port (“Why can’t the ship break down in Brazil?” one of them laments). Traoré takes up residence with Fanny (Chloé Bourgeois), a young single mother who works in the shipyard cafeteria. There’s something in the way that she says, “Shepherd’s pie or hot dogs?” to those lining up for a meal that suggests she’s not happy with her situation, either.
As might be expected, the two bond, more in a paternal than a romantic way since Traoré has a son Fanny’s age. She sympathizes when he shows her a picture of his son and says he hasn’t seen the boy in a long time. Though his job provides his family with a decent life, it also means that he rarely visits them. But despite their shared miseries, cultural differences and the problems Traoré has stirred up with his quest for justice threaten to shatter their fragile alliance.
Such a story could easily slip into sentimentality and moralism, but Pelletier tells it with a stark minimalism that mirrors the bleak, cold setting of bungalows, snow, and greasy nautical equipment. A scene with Traoré and Fanny together watching a snow blower pass in the night conveys an aching beauty that belies the setting’s meanness. Drawing on the kind of harsh but humanistic social realism practiced by filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers, Pelletier shows great promise. Sadly, the world will continue to offer him plenty of material to work with.