Many movies try to create the illusion of real life, but few succeed as well as "The Son" ("Le Fils") an unrelenting drama by Belgian brother Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne about a bereaved father and his confrontation with a tragic past. It's a movie imbued with a fierce intimacy -- a tone and style similar to cinema verite documentary -- but it's not a banal realism, even if the characters and settings in contemporary working-class Liege initially seem mundane. The Dardenne brothers' stark, powerful film keeps suggesting explosive emotions beneath its workaday surface, building to a climax of understated force and near-religious awe.
At the center, examined with almost microscopic intensity, is the remarkable Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet, playing a seemingly unremarkable character, also called Olivier, a fat, middle-aged, pasty-faced carpentry teacher who works in a vocational program for troubled boys and is gradually revealed as prey to extraordinary forces and passions.
"The Son" is the story of what happens to Olivier when his life is jolted by the arrival of a sullen young teenager, Francis (Morgan Marinne), whom Olivier recognizes and whom he tries unsuccessfully to get removed from his training class. At first, the Dardennes don't explain why Olivier is so determined not to teach Francis, or why he seems so obsessed with him -- to the point of breaking into Francis' room and lying on his bed (an action that suggests homosexual secrets). And they don't reveal much about Olivier, a quiet, meticulous man who seems to have few friends and whose ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), now remarried and expecting a child, has little apparent contact with him.
In fact, for the first half-hour, the movie's mystery continues and deepens to a point some audiences may find maddeningly opaque. This is accentuated by the Dardennes' veristic style: the eye-level handheld camera shots hovering around Olivier's blocky neck, the sparse dialogue, absence of music and the frequent unnerving drone of a buzz saw underscoring Olivier's frantic, strange actions.
Then comes the first major shock. (Stop reading if you prefer to be surprised.) We learn that, five years before, Olivier's son was murdered by Francis, who was then an 11-year-old delinquent, during a car robbery. It was this incident that helped destroy Olivier's marriage and blight his life. Now, with the reappearance of the boy killer, Olivier is plunged into a true crisis of conscience.
Will he seek revenge? Should he? And what happens when Francis -- who seems increasingly attached to his teacher, even asking Olivier to be his guardian -- discovers the truth?
The Dardennes keep us guessing about all this, largely because they tell their story with such rigorous devotion to the surface of things and the patterns of life. In the course of "The Son," they show us how carpenters work, how teachers teach and how ex-spouses wrangle with each other. Purging the movie of the usual explanatory passages, they keep their camera hovering close to the action. "The Son" seems real precisely because this is how some of the best documentary filmmakers -- including the Dardennes, who have made or produced more than 60 nonfiction films themselves -- present reality. This is how we see the world in documentary classics like Frederick Wiseman's "High School" or D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back": life at close range, without adornment or commentary.
"The Son" has been generally admired here and in Europe. But some audiences, predictably, will be exasperated by its minimalism, just as some have ridiculed the film's Dogma 95 style of austerity and Gourmet's common-man looks.
Gourmet is an unlikely star. With his lumpy body, chinless beady-eyed face and thick spectacles, he's usually relegated in Belgium and France to meaty supporting roles -- the Belgian equivalent of John C. Reilly. But the Dardennes put him near the center of both "La Promesse" (where he played the boy hero's corrupt father) and "Rosetta" (where he played the food van boss), and here he dominates, the camera breathing down his neck for the entire picture. Gourmet never strikes a false note. At the last Cannes Festival, he won the Best Actor prize for "The Son," beating, among others, this year's Oscar front-runner, Jack Nicholson, nominated for "About Schmidt."
I don't think Gourmet was necessarily better than Nicholson. But he was more believable, and that believability is crucial to "The Son," a movie in which we constantly try to pry beneath the surface, to learn why taciturn Francis killed and what Olivier will do. "The Son," in a way, is about the transfiguration of ordinary life, the slow revelation of the extraordinary beneath the banal -- and this soul-searching is reinforced by obvious Christian imagery and motifs, ranging from the unstressed metaphor of carpentry to the whole theme of fathers and sons.
This is a fine, uncompromising film, and Gourmet's performance should be called great. It's a riveting portrayal of a common man in torment. In "La Promesse" and "Rosetta," the Dardennes -- right now Belgium's premier filmmakers -- created something universal out of the specifics of everyday life. In "The Son," they carry that approach further. If the camera watches closely, their films suggest, we will see clearly the morality, truth and key crisis points in any life. We will see the lacerating spiritual struggle that often remains hidden to the naked eye.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4) "The Son" ("Le Fils")
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; photographed by Alain Marcoen, camera operator Benoit Dervaux; edited by Marie-Helene Dozo; sets designed by Igor Gabriel; produced by the Dardennes, Denis Freyd. In French, with English subtitles. A New Yorker Films release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:43. No MPAA rating. Parents cautioned. Intense and mature themes.
Olivier -- Olivier Gourmet
Francis -- Morgan Marinne
Magali -- Isabella Soupart
Philippo -- Remy Renaud
Omar -- Nassim Hassaini Raoul -- Kevin Leroy
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times