"Well, what can a poor boy do / Except to sing for a rock-and-roll band?" mused Mick Jagger in the classic "Street Fighting Man." One possibility, he suggested, was to "kill the king." Another: stage "a palace revolution." The singer expresses extreme frustration that "where I live, the game to play is compromise solution."
As I watched Ti Laurent, a 2015 film directed by Champlain College assistant professor John Rasmussen, parallels between that track from Beggars Banquet and the movie popped into my consciousness constantly. Shot in the La Savane section of Les Cayes, the most impoverished region in southern Haiti, Ti Laurent tells the story of a poor boy (Pedro Bellabe) forced to fight for survival on the street. His father's dead. His mother has abandoned him. The first in a series of strangers to offer him help is a blind beggar.
The mendicant (Casumir Augustin) initially appears good-humored and happy to have the desperate urchin as his new partner. "You're a little old," he tells the boy before buying him a hot dog, "but beggars can't be choosers." Nice touch, I thought, and then watched the two literally enjoy a beggar's banquet.
A recurring pattern is established when the vagrant suddenly slams Laurent's head against the ground, wreaking bloody dental havoc. "There's nothing sadder [translation: better for business] than a kid with broken teeth," he says with a laugh. Soon the waif decides to try his luck elsewhere. Unfortunately, it only gets worse.
Rasmussen's movie is an inspired adaptation of a literary classic. Screenwriter Peter Teraberry took the premise of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and updated the setting to present-day Haiti. Published anonymously owing to its criticisms of the Catholic Church, the Spanish novella is credited with founding the genre of the picaresque novel and attained such prominence that Miguel de Cervantes name-checked it in Don Quixote. It also made the Index of Forbidden Books of the Spanish Inquisition.
Placed at the mercy of one master after another, Laurent meets with ever more devious mistreatment. The filmmakers do a commendable job of tweaking the source material while remaining faithful to its spirit. A preacher with a popular radio program, for example, puts the lost boy on the air to boost donations, pretending they'll be used to help similarly destitute youths. He's a cheeky creation, a Caribbean Jim Bakker minus his mascara-masked Tammy Faye.
Other "benefactors" are every bit as manipulative and dripping with hypocrisy. Telemundo staple Roberto de Muga is particularly entertaining as a slimeball priest with plans to cage Laurent in the ultimate "compromise solution." I'll leave the rest for you to discover, along with the young drifter's resourcefulness and resilience.
The film has a rough, unpolished look that feels right for a story set against such a bleak backdrop. Rasmussen elicits colorful performances from the predominantly untrained cast, and the score, courtesy of the New York group the Tentacles, is a thing of bluesy, mysterious beauty. Carrying the whole business on his inexperienced shoulders, Bellabe displays an instinctive gift and undeniable charisma in the role of the poor boy. Fun fact: He doesn't sing for a rock-and-roll band, but, according to Rasmussen, he does have quite the reputation in the region as a rapper.
The Vermont International Film Foundation will screen Ti Laurent on Thursday, March 30, 7 p.m., at Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington. $5-8. vtiff.org