There are few filmmakers today for whom moviemaking is as deeply moral an enterprise as it is for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In the brothers’ powerful new film, “The Son,” a man trembles at the threshold of vengeance, confronted by a boy who has done him immeasurable wrong. Forgiveness is the sort of thing that can sound the death knell for a movie, but in “The Son” absolution isn’t grist for a sermon or anything so blandly reassuring -- it is instead the stuff of ordinary life.
The story opens in the barren Belgian cityof Liege, not far from the German and Dutch borders, where a carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) rushes through a few anxious days. Dressed in blue o, his stocky frame girded by a work belt and his eyes obscured by thick lenses, Olivier enters in a whirlwind of frantic motion, the hand-held camera dogging his every move. He has just this minute -- almost in the very instant the story begins -- realized that one of the students at the school where he teaches is the same boy who once murdered someone he loved. In stunned agitation, the carpenter races through the school, peering around corners to catch sight of the teenager, Francis (Morgan Marinne). From the way he looks at the kid, there’s murder in his eyes.
Francis doesn’t know what Olivier knows, and the great, almost unbearable tension in the film comes from the gap in their respective awareness of each other. Recently released from a juvenile prison, Francis lives alone in an apartment outfitted with not much more than a radio, a bed and his prescription medicine. (He has chronic insomnia.) Sullen and watchful, with blunt features arranged like a wall against the world, the teenager has learned little from jail save for defensiveness. As far as Francis is concerned, as he explains to Olivier in one of the film’s more wrenching exchanges, he’s paid his debt to society and has a right to a normal life. He wants to learn carpentry from his standoffish teacher, but, as it becomes painfully clear, Francis is also searching for love.
It doesn’t take Olivier long to realize what Francis wants from him; it takes almost the entirety of the story for us to understand what the man will give. At the center where he teaches, the carpenter pushes the boy away even as Francis tries to sneak under his wing. Olivier forces the boy to carry beams that are too heavy for him, yet he also patiently shows Francis how to build a toolbox. He’s at once gruffly paternal with the teenager and scarily hostile, caught between curiosity and contempt. (Gourmet won best actor at Cannes last year, beating out Adrien Brody’s performance in “The Pianist.”) Often silent, Olivier keeps his feelings hidden, but he can’t keep his unhappiness quiet. He radiates such extreme unease that even the camera that hovers next to him darts about as restlessly as a hummingbird.
Best known for their modest art-house successes “La Promesse” and “Rosetta,” the Dardennes began making nonfiction films in the 1970s as a form of political action. From documentaries about strikes and factories, they moved into fiction and, after making two features that slipped into the ether, found international acclaim with stories about people desperately clinging to a place in the world. (The fiction films retain a gritty documentary texture.) Like the immigrant African workers of “La Promesse” trying to find a foothold in Europe, and like the eponymous Rosetta, whose attempts to find and keep a menial job nearly destroy her, Francis is single-minded in his pursuit of normalcy. Just as poverty did for Rosetta, prison has turned him into one of society’s resident exiles, an outcast among the comfortably living.
The Dardennes have said that “The Son” could have been called “The Father,” an observation that reinforces the film’s religious undertones. It’s possible to see the film as a Christian allegory, but there’s something too limiting about that take and not only because the filmmakers are Jewish. The themes of vengeance and forgiveness aren’t the provenance of any one faith, after all, and there’s as much leftist politics in their worldview as there is the documentarian’s pursuit of realism and a first-rate Hollywood director’s sense of narrative urgency. There are all sorts of ways to look at “The Son” -- as a philosophical thriller, as a statement of faith, as a call to political arms or just as a terrific entertainment. Perhaps the best way to look at it, though, is as a gentle warning that in a world guided by an eye for an eye, everyone ends up blind.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Intense emotional interactions and suggestions of violence
A Belgian-French co-production, Les Films du Fleuve, Archipel 35, RTBF (Belgian TV), with support from Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Communaute Francaise de Belgique et des Teledistributeurs Wallons, Eurimages, Loteri Nationale de Belgique and with the participation of Canal +, Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC), Wallimage, released by New Yorker Films. Writers-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Producers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd. Director of photography Alain Marcoen. Editor Marie-Helene Dozo. Set designer Igor Gabriel. Costumes Monic Parelle. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
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