Whenever I wander in the streets of the Moroccan Medina, I feel at home. There's that strange mixture of various fragrances floating in the air: spices, kebab, frying delicacies (not much different from these appetizing jelabis), sea spray from the fish market, tanned leather from the shoe shop and this whole conglomerate smell outsiders or tourists might feel stinky, but as far as "my" senses are concerned, "there's no place like home". I didn't pick it, it picked me.
And maybe there's something innately circular about life, we're born home, we move close or far from it, and there's the need to get back. I even have a personal theory: that even your children can find a deep "connection" with the place you were born in, your home will also feel like home for them. And it is indeed "A Long Way Home", the poignant and inspiring story of Saroo Brierley, born in India, lost at the age of five, adopted by an Australian couple and reuniting with his mother and his family twenty-five years later. What else can be said? It's a simple story but it's often in the most plain-looking grounds that you can find the most precious gems.
Garth Davis' "Lion" is indeed simple in its storytelling; it's linear and straightforward in its clarity. Basically the whole first hour shows poor Saroo looking for his brother Guddu in hostile and overcrowded streets of Calcutta and finding a few moments of relief interrupted by adults, and in the huge lottery of karma, some can look extremely friendly and have sinister motives. But good fate sides with little Saroo and one lucky encounter leading to another, a couple of Australian tourist discovers the 'wanted notice' published in a newspaper and they instantly fall in love with the kid and adopt him. Saroo is then taught English and good manners.
Then, something interesting happens: while I expected some resistance, he actually tries to fit in his new family as if he's aware that there's something really providential in that couple of good-hearted people from Tasmania, played by Nicole Kidman and David Brienham. The one twist that spoils the family harmony is the adoption of a mentally troubled and self-harming Indian boy named Mantosh one year later. "Lion" manages to say a lot without words, from the reaction of Sunny Pawar, who does a fine, subtle, acting job, I could feel that he didn't welcome this arrival with much enthusiasm but wouldn't display jealousy out of love for his new mom.
And the way he grew up was in line with the character. Dev Patel finally makes his entrance as a brilliant young man in his mid-twenties, ready to embrace studies in hotel management, he's also a nice guy like you seldom see in movies, no tortured soul, no rebel, no wimp either and respectful toward his parents. Seeing Patel again made me regret how harshly I judged "Slumdog Millionnaire" but I never commented his acting but a script that took a rather simplistic turn near the end. So, I was glad to see Patel again, playing another guy trying to find a loved one through a "modern device" but I hoped Davis wouldn't derail the film from its beautiful simplicity.
And I had a good scare when his soon-to-be girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara, started improvising a little dance on the streets as it almost felt like there would be some Bollywood number, but it was just her twisted way to seduce him, and it worked
well, to some degree. Personally, she struck me as a too cold and sophisticated girl, I didn't buy that a guy so warm and "sunny" like Saroo would fall in love with a younger version of Kristin Scott Thomas. Even the love scenes made me wonder if Mara wasn't still under the influence of her previous romance in "Carol". Never mind, the center of the movie were Patel and Kidman and as soon as Patel has this delicate 'Proust Madeleine' moment, the story takes off and with the miracle of "Google Earth", Saroo tries to find the way back home.
The film tries to inject some 'suspense' in that powerful journey but that wasn't necessary, I think they could have just compressed the 'research' within the last weeks before Saroo's departure and avoided these little 'pending' moments, only to focus on the relationship with his adoptive mother and some emotional insights about the heights of generosity some hearts can reach. There were many heartfelt statements about adoption that could have enriched the story but the girlfriend allowed Saroo to explain his existential crisis to the audience without never really existing on her own, I didn't care for her anyway. The tormented brother could have made a more interesting foil for Saroo and would have provided a fine back-story paralleling Saroo's experience.
While "Lion" isn't flawless, it's a movie whose emotional power relied on the ending, and when Saroo was getting closer to his home, I could find my own heart beating, that's for the empathy
and that was the price to pay, to earn that teary explosion of happiness and a few emotionally rewarding revelations, concluding one of the few 2016 movies of universal appeal. Indeed, If there ever was one statement to sum up the general appeal of movies, or stories regardless of their narrative medium, I would quote the late Roger Ebert who said "The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone".
Truer words have never been spoken indeed. Garth Davis' "Lion" might have an Australian-Indian protagonist but anyone can relate to him, from India, Iceland, Jamaica, Morocco or any part of the world.
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