14-year-old Nour (Maël Rouin-Berrandou) trudges across his council estate, flip-flops smacking against the concrete as he struggles with a hefty laundry bag and a five-litre bottle of water. It’s the height of summer, and while other kids are out playing or attending summer camp, Nour spends his days either completing community service work or looking after his comatose mother. The youngest of four, Nour shares his carer duties with the rest of his brothers who all live together with their mother in an apartment in the south of France. Too young to understand the costs and complications of sourcing nurses and paying hospital bills, Nour tries to help out by blasting opera music for his mother every day as she used to love the genre – much to the annoyance of his other brothers. One day, while Nour is painting the walls of his school to complete his community service, he stumbles across a music summer camp ran by the opera singer Sarah (Judith Chemla). Here, Nour develops a fervent love for opera and discovers a talent for singing he never knew he had before. Presented in the Un Certain Regard category of the 74th Cannes Film Festival, Yohan Manca’s feature debut La Traviata, My Brothers and I is a powerful coming-of-age tale examining class barriers in the arts, brotherly bonds, and grief.
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“La Traviata” is a renowned three-act opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi and contains the very same song Nour’s father used to serenade Nour’s mother with. When Nour hears Sarah practicing songs from the opera in her classroom, he is instantly hooked and reminded of more joyful years. Skipping his community service to come and sing with the group, his love for opera – and specifically Pavarotti – only grows and grows. Each week, they practice riffs and vocal runs and use straws and blowing techniques to help increase their lung capacity. Nour can’t read music very well but Sarah insists he has a gift for singing by ear. While Nour’s love for opera (and its ability to connect him with his mother) is incredibly touching, there still feels like there is something missing in the way La Traviata, My Brothers and I handles Nour’s relationship with music. There’s a disconnect in how the film misses the opportunity to refine physical and technical elements to truly portray the feelings and fulfilment Nour achieves from listening to and singing opera. As an audience, we can visually see how Nour is affected by music but the film’s soundscape fails to make us truly experience it in the same way. While the film is notably scattered with some beautiful cinematography, it does lack any exceptional rhythm, tempo, and fine-tuning in its sound editing. These are the very key traits that are usually so unique to music-focused cinema and make such films so immersive and special to experience.
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One of the film’s strongest features is its capacity to craft complex characters and realistic relationships between the brothers. Manca excels in his ability to write each brother as a complicated, interesting, and layered character. Abel (Dali Benssalah) is the eldest, the strict and often aggressive patriarch who keeps the family afloat by flogging football jerseys. Mo (Sofian Khammes) is the second eldest, the joyful and upbeat one who often acts as a peacekeeper and makes money by wooing rich tourists. Then there’s Hédi (Moncef Farfar), the loose cannon of the family who is impulsive and hard to control – he makes money by dealing drugs. All tucked up in the same apartment in the sweltering heat, life for the brothers is often claustrophobic and full of brewing tensions – something even Nour is aware of. When arguments arise, young Nour is the first to rush to close the windows to ensure the neighbours don’t hear and he himself is no stranger to a slap or clip around the ear from his brothers. But behind such aggression and frustration, there is a simple sadness about four young men who have no idea how to cope without their mother. Piecing together elements of kitchen sink drama with stagnant shots and warm glowing lights, Manca creates a surprisingly romantic and odic portrait of loss and strained brotherhood.
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The likes of opera music and orchestras are a world away from Nour’s upbringing – where the only musical instrument in Nour’s home is a forgotten piano plastered with football stickers. Opera has always been an art form preserved for the richest and most elite in society, not so much for working class boys like Nour. Because of this, there are obstacles in the way for Nour. Without Sarah’s kindness, Nour could have never afforded to attend the summer camp. However, with this, Sarah is not always the most understanding of why Nour is sometimes late because of how the classes clash with his community service duties. In one scene, Nour spits that Sarah cannot understand him as she has only ever had to deal with ‘rich bitch sacrifices’. On top of this, Nour’s brothers are constantly pressuring him to drop the classes and get a job to contribute to the family upkeep. Nonetheless, opera still represents hope and freedom for Nour – he views it as a chance to escape his life of poverty and believes it will help him achieve closeness with his now unreachable mother. Sarah herself is a maternal figure who embodies the empathy and kindness that Nour’s hard-nosed and practical brothers aren’t always able to provide him with.
Delving through household tensions, expectations of masculinity, and class inequality, La Traviata, My Brothers and I is an intuitive and detailed insight into the hopes and dreams of so many youngsters growing up in poverty. While sometimes missing that bit of spirit and rhythm required to make musical stories so compelling and engulfing, Manca’s feature debut is nevertheless an impressive and poetic look at brotherhood, ambitious aspirations, and living with loss.
Written by Abi Aherne
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