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Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are Cannes Film Festival favorites, having premiered all but their first feature at the festival, but Young Ahmed earned them their first Best Director award, joining a Grand Prix, Best Screenplay, and a pair of Palme d’Ors on the mantle. The Dardennes’s directorial style, generally defined by long-takes, the absence of non-diegetic music, and infrequent close-ups has been short-handed as “realist,” “neo-neorealist,” or “documentarian” depending on the sensibilities of the speaker, but all understate the remarkable control the pair tends to exert over their scripts. It’s the subtle decisions — an unexpected cut to a close-up of Marion Cotillard’s hand preventing someone from changing the radio station in Two Days, One Night or the matter-of-fact tone of the banter between a man and his son’s killer in The Son — that elevate their best films, and the same subtleties garnered them this year’s reward.
Indeed, similar levels of control and attentiveness are present in Young Ahmed, which depicts the incipient radicalization of a Muslim boy in Belgium and the efforts of a correctional facility to rehabilitate him. Like all Dardennes films, it maintains an unremitting focus on its simple story, with details here and there offering insight into a character’s past or living situation. In its most dynamic scene, the Muslim community holds a town hall-style discussion about whether their schoolteacher should initiate an Arabic course. Yes, say some locals; they must learn to speak the language fluently in a way that will be useful in their later lives. No, believes the Imam, who sends Ahmed and his cousin as mouthpieces; it is heretical to learn Arabic through means other than the Koran. The deceptively polyphonic scene presents an illuminating and engaged look at the very real dilemmas facing a marginalized community, with viewpoints all along the spectrum represented. Yet, that scene aside, the Dardennes can’t be bothered to gesture toward systemic and institutional factors that affect this community; both their script and direction remain dedicated to the liberal humanism that has earned the pair praise for the past twenty years. It’s a great fit for a film examining solidarity and depression, the nature of forgiveness, or for a fairytale about a child abandoned by his father, but is less appropriate for this subject.
Compare it with Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear-winning Synonyms, about Yoav, an Israeli who, disgusted with his country’s nationalism, immigrates to France and befriends a bourgeois couple. Unlike the Dardennes, Lapid’s direction is prone to flights of fancy. He experiments with a “free indirect” mode of cinema with point of view fake-outs and moments of aural subjectivity, and performances elevate characters to the point of satire even in the ostensibly serious moments. Lapid rejects, in other words, the claim to an unmediated reality so often lauded in the Dardennes’s approach, but in doing so, he reveals the truths masked by reality itself. As Yoav navigates love and work, encounters fascists and inhumane border policy, and then begins taking the mandatory classes for naturalization, he realizes that France’s secular, assimilationist society espouses its own kind of nationalism — a point driven home by its absurd, bombastic climax and its ambiguous, metaphorical end.
By highlighting Yoav’s internal realities and exaggerating the external world, Lapid is able to reveal how France enables extremism to take hold within its borders. In Young Ahmed, if the correctional facility fails in rehabilitation, it is through the individualist terms of the drama, as exemplified by a conversation between the state psychologist and Ahmed. The film never acknowledges that the secular assimilationism of European society is partially to blame for alienating its Muslim populations and pushing them toward fundamentalism. The state cannot solve the problem because the state is the problem, so it pathologizes and individualizes. The Dardennes, by attempting to marry their style with such subject matter, are guilty of the same sin. They can still effortlessly craft scenes both sad and sweet, but sometimes great directing is not enough.
Synonyms (2019), dir. Nadav Lapid, will screen on September 29 and October 1, and Young Ahmed (2019), dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, will screen on September 30 and October 2. Both films will screen at Film at Lincoln Center(165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.