"L'Enfant," from Belgium's filmmaking brother team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, isn't quite as exalted as their "Rosetta" and "La Promesse," but it's an anguished, then hopeful little miracle that towers over most of what's out there and confirms them as spiritual successors to the great Robert Bresson.
Their nervous verite documentary style may seem a pole apart from the simple, composed serenity of Bresson, but the humanity in their films is as deep, considered and passionate. The worlds they inhabit are ugly, but the films are distinguished by their moral rigor.
L'Enfant" begins with a grim Bethlehem parody -- homeless father, mother and newborn child on the littered embankment of a polluted river. Samuel Beckett couldn't have written a bleaker Nativity scene. Jeremie Renier's Bruno, the father, is impulsive and almost suicidally dumb. He and a 14-year-old confederate (Jeremie Segard) run petty scams when they're not snatching purses on a borrowed moped. Bruno bottoms out when his girlfriend, Sonia (Deborah Francois), has him babysit while she goes to collect unemployment.
Rashly and callously, he sells the baby to gangsters running a black market adoption racket. Immediately consumed with remorse, especially after Sonia dumps him in rage, pain and disgust, he scrambles to get the baby back, but finds it more complicated than he imagined. But then imagination isn't what Bruno is about. Never condescending, the Dardennes point the way to a redemption of sorts.
For all the moment-to-moment urgency of the film, the Dardennes remain detached, unjudgmental and compassionate. Never do they fall into the trap of giving Bruno an out by depicting him as victim of an uncaring dog-eat-dog society. Bruno isn't evil. He's just one of the dogs. The film stands by, patiently but sternly, as it offers him the chance to deepen and learn a few new tricks -- or at least survival skills -- as you realize that Bruno is the child of the title, not the baby, and that he just may grow up.