Adú is director Salvador Calvo’s sophomore feature and is a big step up from the solid 1898: Our Last Men In The Philipines. It covers three lightly interconnected stories that take place across Africa. In the first, Alvaro Cervantes‘ Guardia Civil officer is stationed in Melilla, one of two Spanish territories in Africa. Covering an area of roughly 5 square miles on the coast bordering Morocco, Melilla has long been a flashpoint for immigration into Europe from Africa and is surrounded by the Melilla border fence, a twenty feet tall double fence with razor wire and watchtowers.
The film opens on an attempt by a group of migrants to storm the fence. Civilians and guards are struggling in the dark, fighting for handholds, yelling, and bleeding from razor cuts. In the chaos, one of the guards strikes one of the migrants and he falls to his death. We then follow the investigation into the incident with Cervantes caught between the pressure of his fellow officers and his conscience.
The second strand begins in Cameroon with Luis Tosar‘s NGO executive in charge of wildlife protection operations against poachers. In particular, focusing on the friction between his European visitor and the local men he considers under his command. The arrival of his troubled teenage daughter Anna Castillo only complicates his situation further.
The third strand gives the film its title and also takes the lion’s share of the running time. Six-year-old Adú and his adolescent sister Alika (Zayiddiya Dissou) cross paths with a group of poachers and are forced to flee. Their initial plan is to reach Spain where their father is already staying. Now, Cameroon to Spain is roughly 2,500 miles. And that’s as the crow flies. It’s almost unfathomable that children can manage to travel that far. Yet a huge number of kids have to face this sort of challenge. In the final credits, there’s a statistic that, in 2018, there were 70 million displaced people on Earth. Half of them were children.
A New Star Is Discovered
Building most of your movie around a six-year-old actor is a risky move, but in Moustapha Oumarou the makers found someone truly special. They reportedly auditioned thousands of children for the role before discovering Moustapha on the streets of Benin. For a kid with no experience, he gives an astounding performance. It never feels like he’s acting. You’re just watching a child reacting naturally to his experiences. Which can at times be almost unbearable. Adú’s odyssey is hard and dangerous. Traveling thousands of miles while poor and undocumented involves risky practices, harsh environments, and human predators all too willing to take advantage of the weak and vulnerable.
Later on his journey, he’s joined by Massar (Adam Nourou), a teenager also making his way north. He takes Adú under his wing protecting him from the worst realities of the situation, as far as he can. Nourou gives a great performance with his outer enthusiasm and smiles for Adú to cover the weight he’s feeling as a refugee and protector to a child, while still a child himself. Massar is truly heroic in the lengths he’ll go to for Adú, which, fair warning, includes facing abuse in the younger boy’s place.
A Film with Ambition
In interspacing Adú’s journey with the other two stories, the film attempts to give a wider view of the relationship between Europe and Africa. These parts, while solid, can’t help but be less compelling. The legal travails of the police at the border, while important in the abstract, aren’t literally life or death. Tosar and Castillo give good performances as always. Adú makes a subtle job of pointing out that even when working with good intentions, unconscious bias from whites will cause problems or hamstring the efforts made.
Tosar’s Gonzalo is trying to protect endangered animals, and that’s a noble cause by anyone’s metrics. But he’s not taking into account the broader factors that the local society and economy are operating under. There’s a heavy irony in his ideas that there should be more of a community effort to improve the area, when, as his daughter points out, one of the reasons he stays in Africa and seldom returns to his own homeland is to avoid paying taxes. There’s a blithe unspoken assumption by some of the European characters that those trying to get into Europe are seeking to go from “okay” to “better” in an easy way. That if only they stayed and fixed things they’d be fine where they are. For literally millions of people, the attempt to reach richer countries is nothing to do with money, but to escape starvation, war, lethal gangs, and a plethora of other reasons that aren’t a choice. Illegally emigrating is hard.
Wisely, the writing steers clear of moralizing or offering broad solutions. The leads in all three stories are doing what they believe to be right. And there are solid arguments for and against their beliefs and actions. What this film does by centering children is say that the world is a complex, interlinked place. Attempting to ignore that with nationalistic rhetoric and isolationism creates suffering. And it’s the most vulnerable that will bear the brunt of that. Only the most inhuman think that suffering away from their front door doesn’t matter.
This is a much-needed movie with, at its heart, a child actor giving as good a performance as you’ll see all year.
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