LIFF SPECIAL REVIEW: Babylon Sisters

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Twelve-year-old Kamla (Amber Dutta) lives with her parents Shanti (Nav Ghotra) and Ashok (Rahul Dutta) in a run-down apartment building in Trieste, Italy. The building’s inhabitants represent the newer waves of immigration to Italy (and other western European countries), coming from regions as far-flung as Eastern Europe, Turkey, China and India. The one exception is the Professore Leone (veteran Italian actor Renato Carpentieri), a retired teacher who rails against his neighbours, accusing them of eating his cats and generally ruining the neighbourhood. The lives of the inhabitants are turned upside down when the landlord, Zacchigna (Lorenzo Acquaviva) serves eviction notices to everyone in the building – the Italian professore included. It’s up to the women in the building to come together to learn what rights they have, and to learn what they can and must do to protect their families.

Director Gigi Roccati gives us a story that is becoming all too familiar as people leave their homes in order to provide better and safer lives for their families. Fear of “the other” and of a loss of a traditional and familiar way of life means these immigrants often face all kinds of anger and racism. But Roccati takes that narrative and infuses it with warmth. The four women initially come together to face the landlord and his attempt to evict them illegally, but as the film progresses, they learn about each other and their cultures; they discover that they are not limited to what they currently do (whether it’s a stay-at-home housewife or a cleaning lady), but they are encouraged to think about what they are good at and what they enjoy in order to make a better future for themselves and their families.

Amber Dutta as Kamla forms the solid core of this film – as the child of immigrants, Kamla is often found acting as a bridge between two cultures, that of her parents, and that of their adopted homeland, Italy. Kamla’s father struggles to earn a living, and is often angry and protective of his wife and daughter, unwilling to let old ways go. But we never doubt for a moment that what he does is out of love for them, even when what he asks — barring Kamla from spending time with the Professore, for example – is based on fears that are largely unfounded.

And it would have been all too easy to make the Professore Leone a one-note scapegoat for racisim, but the film allows him to grow, as well, as he ends up in the same boat as all the other residents of the building faced with forced eviction. When Kamla asks him to help her with her homework, a gentle and sweet relationship grows between them, with the Professore giving Kamla insight into her new home as he shares the music and poetry he loves so much.

It’s music, too, that forms a thread that ties these characters together – the Professore’s much lamented cats are named after classical musicians, and classical music is often heard coming out of his apartment. Kamla and her mother sing and dance to Indian music, and when Shanti reveals that her talent is dancing, the other women come up with a plan to set up a dance school, a move that would allow all of them to use their talents and contribute to their families in ways that allow them to look beyond the traditional dead-end jobs generally open to immigrants.

Babylon Sisters is infused with warmth and hope — yes, these lives are hard at times, and yes, the balance between one’s culture of origin and the culture one finds oneself in will always be a challenge. But the film shows us, too, that there are supports for these people, sometimes in the most unexpected of places; and that by working together, sharing joys as well as sorrows, learning to make the most of skills and talents, and perhaps with a little luck, lives really do become better.

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