'Spartacus & Cassandra': Cannes Review

Spartacus Cassandre Cannes Film Still - H 2014

Spartacus Cassandre Cannes Film Still - H 2014

A heartrending if familiar story of two Romani children who have to choose between two equally impossible things.

Director Ioannis Nuguet looks at the hard-knock life of two Romani children in France in this documentary that's part of the ACID sidebar in Cannes.

CANNES -- In the affecting documentary Spartacus & Cassandra, from director Ioannis Nuguet, two Romani children in France are forced to choose between a life on the streets with their parents or a more regular future that includes an education and a roof over their heads but with a foster family instead of their own.

Part of the parallel ACID section at the Cannes Film Fest, this 80-minute documentary manages to not only tell a heartrending -- if familiar -- story but also manages to offset the shiver-inducing grittiness of destitution with some lyrical glimpses of hope and short scenes that showcase the simple joys of childhood that these kids are mostly missing out on.

Spartacus & Cassandra should be a natural pick for documentary and human-rights festivals and events as well as specialized distributors looking for a film that translates many of the subjects it deals with into very concrete human terms.

Spartacus, a 13-year-old rascal, and Cassandra, three years his junior, live with their parents on the street. Their father’s main activity is drinking away the money they don’t have, while their mother tries to make a little dough by selling practically wilted bouquets of lilies of the valley in a busy shopping street.

Though the family’s been in France for six years, their father doesn’t want his children to attend school, though one gets the idea the paterfamilias is mainly against it not because it'll take his children away from him but rather that it means he'll end up alone, with no one looking after him. Oftentimes, their mother simply looks on, bewailing her lot on life.

Clearly, this is not a healthy situation for kids to grow up in and thankfully there’s some help in the form of Camille, a girl who works as a trapeze artist at a circus and whose bigheartedness expresses itself in occasionally very stern behavior toward the kids, clearly for their own good. A child-welfare judge also steps in and asks them whether they’d prefer to be placed in foster homes, something the kids find very hard to decide, since it would mean abandoning their friends, family and community but could also mean a potentially better future.

When things get a little better, Spartacus wonders, in voice-over, if he "really deserves all this happiness," though a scene or so later he states that the “paradise he lives in is disgusting if his parents continue to live on the street.” Indeed, the whole film suggests the Catch-22 these kids are stick in and it’s clear that their occasionally difficult behavior is at least partially rooted in the fact they come from a very poor and unstable home. An intense nighttime conversation between Spartacus and his drunk father suggests that even Spartacus knows where the main problem lies.

Nuguet captures all the drama with standard-for-the-genre handheld camerawork, though he occasionally allows more poetic image sequences of photos, super-8 and sped-up footage to seep into the proceedings, providing both relief from the shocking poverty of this family’s life in the not-so-belle France as well as a suggestion of what childhood should really be like for these two children. The evocative music, by Aurelie Menetrieux, further helps underscore this idea.

Production company: Morgane

Writer-Director: Ioannis Nuguet

Producers: Gerard Lacroix, Gerard Pons, Samuel Luret

Director of photography: Ioanis Nuguet

Editors: Ioannis Nuguet, Anne Lorriere

Composer: Aurelie Menetrieux, Milk, Coffee & Sugar

No rating, 80 minutes