Movie Review: “Amin” offers a melodramatic slice of African immigrant life in Europe

Veteran Moroccan director Philippe Faucon (“Sabine,” “Fatima”) conjures up a multi-layered if somewhat melodramatic portrait of immigrant life in modern Europe with
“Amin,” a story of African men working far from home, the stresses they’re under and the network of people depending on their “undeclared” labor in France.

Screen newcomer Moustapha Mbengue has the title role, a 30something Senegalese man doing day labor in demolition, landscaping and construction in his corner of France.

There are many just like him — men from Mali, Algeria, Senegal and Morocco — sharing space in a vast, crowded dorm-like apartment complex, hanging out after hours, living cheaply, sending money home to support extended families there.

Amin is a dependable, conscientious worker. So when he tells friends in the cafeteria where many of them eat in their apartment complex that he’s raising money “for the school back home,” you can take that to the bank.

Yes, he hides the cash in his socks. And “No,” he has nothing to declare to Senegalese customs. Especially not currency. He even makes a speech to the kids at school when he delivers the cash.

That’s pressure that he’s put himself under. There are other pressures he didn’t ask for but should have expected. He and his wife Ayesha (Mareme N’Diaye) have a romantic reunion before he greets his kids the next day. But she’s been working on them.

“Tell your father we want to come back to France with him,” she coaches the three. And they listen. “I can’t cope with your mother,” she gripes about their current crowded living arrangements.

If they knew the razor’s edge he was living on, they wouldn’t push for this. And he’s spare with his details on the privation and hardships he endures.

His brothers have the dream of opening a butcher shop that can employ the entire family, financed by Amin’s savings. In exchange, these two patriarchal African Muslims “keep an eye on Ayesha”. Bullying brother Mohammed even lectures her on not distracting Amin, not messing things up for everybody.

Ayesha’s fears that Amin may let his eye wander in La belle France is all but fated to come to pass. The other woman (Emmanuelle Devos of “Frank & Lola” and “Coco Before Chanel”) is newly-divorced, and has hired Amin’s crew for a renovation project. She is considerate, curious about how they work through the dietary restrictions of Ramadan.

And in this simplistic script, all it takes is her driving him home once or twice to put them in bed together. It’s that abrupt, a bit of dramatic business that embraces all sorts of melodramatic cliches.

What will this added “stress” mean for Amin’s “projects” — building a house, financing his brothers’ butcher shop — back home, the three kids “I don’t get to see grow up (in French or Senegalese “Wolof” with English subtitles)?

What will bring things to a head for Ayesha? And Gabrielle (Devos)? How long will her “no strings” thing last? And how will her ex and her daughter respond?

Faucon renders this intimate portrait in compact, tiny strokes. He must have had the idea of making this a broader story, as we see the trials of an older Moroccan colleague (Noureddine Benallouche) who has spent his life “undeclared,” cheating himself of the social safety net of insurance and a pension, making a decent life for the two daughters who stayed with him in France but shattering his marriage back home.

That “This could be Amin down the road” story is barely touched on, and the Senegalese scenes, with N’Diaye’s fierce resistance to being “managed” by her absentee husband’s jerk brothers, feel shortchanged.

I liked the depiction of the complex web of support depending on one man’s overseas labor, the ways his Euros alter lives in the villages outside of Dakar. It’s a story repeated over many nationalities, in almost every hemisphere.

The pitfalls depicted here may be entirely too predictable, familiar to the point of routine. But “Amin” still manages to touch on a wide array of reasons behind economic immigration, and the financial, personal and emotional cost-benefit analysis most who engage in it should weigh before taking the risks.

MPA Rating: unrated, sex, nudity

Cast: Moustapha Mbengue, Emmanuelle Devos, Mareme N’Diaye, Noureddine Benallouche and Moustapha Naham

Credits: Directed by Philippe Faucon, script by Philippe Faucon, Yasmina Nini-Faucon. A Film Movement Plus release.

Running time: 1:31

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