The great French director Jean Renoir famously said, "A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again." Although Renoir died long before they made their first feature, his statement is perhaps the best summation of the career of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who since the late 1990s have produced an impressive body of work with a virtually unrivaled aesthetic and thematic consistency. One might think that the fundamental sameness of their subjects and approach would eventually dull their work, but it doesn't. In fact, each of their films feels unique and of a piece, and they take on an even greater impact when seen in concert with their other works. It is truly an impressive feat to create individual films that stand on their own and in harmony with each other.
Young Ahmed (Le jeune Ahmed), the Dardennes' latest film, won them the director's award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and marks their first foray into the world of religion. Like so many of their other films, it is set in a small Belgian town and features primarily working-class characters and centers on a troubled protagonist who is struggling to define himself and make sense of his place in the world. This drama is particularly fraught because it deals with radical Islam, although, as they have with their other films, the Dardennes make their protagonist relatable and sympathetic even if we deplore his actions and cringe at his justifications.
The titular character, Ahmed (astonishing newcomer Idir Ben Addi), is a thin, ungainly, bespectacled 13-year-old who lives with his single mother (Claire Bodson) and several older siblings. From dialogue we learn that Ahmed has recently been radicalized by his local imam, Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), and his strict Muslim faith has taken over all aspects of his life. He idolizes a distant cousin who died a martyr and adheres strictly to the tents of his faith, to the point that he refuses to shake the hand of Ins (Myriem Akheddiou), his kindly teacher simply because she is a woman. Ins eventually becomes a target for Ahmed because his imam labels her an infidel because of the manner in which she teaches her Arabic classes, which leads him to a make a horrible decision that, in his mind, is not only fully justified, but absolutely essential. It is, in his mind, not a choice at all, but a necessity, a requirement for his existence as a devout Muslim.
Most films would build up to that kind of narrative development, but the Dardennes (who wrote and directed together), make it the story's opening because they aren't interested in how Ahmed was radicalized and they aren't interested in tracing his descent from a regular, video-game-playing teenager to a fervent jihadist. Rather, they are interested in tracing Ahmed's (possible) emergence from that world. They want to dramatize what an escape from such fundamentalism might look like and how Ahmed might claim his own voice again. What makes the film so compelling and so tricky is that the Dardennes, as they typically do, refuse to take any narrative path that might be obvious and easy. Young Ahmed is not a feel-good paean to the triumph of the individual spirit over religious conformity, but rather a painful, trying, sometimes frustrating dramatization of an introverted kid's deeply conflicted struggle with his deepest beliefs. A large part of the film's second half finds him working on a farm as part of his being incarcerated in a juvenile facility, which a lesser film would present as an all-too-simplistic path to redemption. Instead, it becomes a place of both growth and confusion, as he attracts and is attracted to a teen girl named Louise (Victoria Bluck) with whom he can't be because she isn't a Muslim. And, while he appears to be making progress, at the same time there are suggestions that he is simply faking it so he can secretly continue his jihadist mission.
The Dardennes are masters of empathy, and Young Ahmed ranks with their best films in terms of aligning us with a protagonist whose actions and worldview we may vigorously oppose, but with whom can't help empathizing. Idir Ben Addi, a nonprofessional actor, is marvelous as Ahmed, whose awkwardness makes his violent actions seem both terrifying and pathetic. We can understand on some level why this kid, who has probably never fit in anywhere, would gravitate toward a worldview that both explains everything and also puts him in a position of power and authority. The resoluteness of his beliefs give his actions meaning even as they make no sense outside of his perspective, but that is precisely what gives the film its value: It helps us understand why someone like Ahmed would make the choices he does, but also long for his escape from them. Young Ahmed is, in the best sense of the word, compassionate.
Copyright 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Kino Lorber
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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