Movie Review: The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir

A street magician on a trip to Europe gets swept up in the refugee crisis

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir (Podivuhodná cesta fakíra, který uvízl ve skříni)
Directed by Ken Scott
With Dhanush, Bérénice Bejo, Erin Moriarty, Barkhad Abdi, Gérard Jugnot, Ben Miller

The current immigrant crisis in Europe serves as a backdrop to the well-intentioned romantic comedy The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir.

But as much as one tries to be charmed by the quirky map-hopping romance and the fantastic adventures, the English-language French production just never ignites. It hopes to be a cross between Amelie, The Life of Pi, and Around the World in Eighty Days, with exotic locations matched with a strong dose of fantasy and some moral messages. But the humor never evokes deep laughter and the romance seems a bit too forced.

The framework of the film is that a street magician in Mumbai named Aja (played by Tamil actor and singer Dhanush) is telling his exploits to some young kids who are in trouble with the law.

It is a strange approach, as his life isn't exactly a cautionary tale. His petty crimes actually led to some thrilling adventures. But the young criminals are just a minor part in the rather sprawling tale.

Aja grows up running wild in the streets, becoming a performer doing levitation and other sorts of tricks. 

Eventually, he finds some old letters, which lead him to want to travel to Europe as a young man.

The picaresque story takes off there. He meets an expat woman in Paris at a large furniture shop.

It is what is called a “meet cute” scene, where opposites are accidentally thrown together in some clever way. Aja and Marie (Erin Moriarty) seem to share a bit of the same sense of humor. The scene in the store is amusing, but a bit labored. And even though Aja behaves rather oddly, Marie agrees to meet him again.

But fate throws him a curve ball. He winds up being mistaken for an undocumented immigrant, and nobody believes that he is actually a tourist from Mumbai.

The film shifts a bit in tone as Aja struggles to deal with a system treats people like lost luggage. The best part of the film is that it does put these people into a human perspective. Aja makes friends with his fellow refugees, and learns the basic rules from them. He also finds out that many of them have families, or had one when they set out. They are not people whose only goal is to get government handouts. Each one has a dream to start a business or something.

Few films have dealt with the refugee crisis, and those have either been documentaries like Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, hyperviolent crime dramas that focus on smugglers, or arthouse films that reach a small audience.

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir tries to deal with the issue using motifs of popular films in the hopes that it will make the subject matter more palatable.

There are even some spontaneous song and dance numbers, including a rather absurd one with an immigration officer trying to justify his lack of empathy.

Barkhad Abdi, who recently was in Blade Runner 2049, plays one of the most prominent refugees.

Aja, in his quest to get back to meet Marie, keeps escaping and tend to go out of the frying pan and into the fire. His ups and down resemble a Victorian novel.

This allows him to meet people of various classes. Bérénice Bejo, who starred in the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist, shows up as a temperamental actress named Nelly. She gets pretty big billing for a small role, but it is crucial in the overall scheme of events.

The story continues to throw Aja to the wind, but his persistence and his spirit never get darkened.

The tale is one being told, and its purpose is to convince several young boys to abandon their lives of crime. There is a bit of a heavy dose of moralizing.

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir is one of those of those films that a viewer desperately wants to like, but just can’t warm up to. And not liking it makes the viewer feel guilty and heartless, since Aja and Marie are so sincere and the various refugees all deserve a break.

But the mix of humor, absurdity, coincidence and the real tragedy is a difficult souffle to stir, and it winds up being served a little undercooked in parts. 

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