Watching classic cinema has been one of the key activities keeping me moderately sane during shelter in place. Among the 50 or so films I’ve viewed, the highlight has been rediscovering the work of the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
Their films are masterpieces of realism, with unpretty urban settings and working class characters often on the fringes of society. Their protagonists are frequently faced with unpalatable dilemmas, as in Two Days, One Night, where a group of factory workers must choose between surrendering a bonus to allow an employee to return from mental health leave, or keeping the money. Commonly – as in my other Dardenne favorite, The Kid with a Bike – they analyze the consequences of parental negligence on the moral development of children. And lest all of this sounds too grim, the brothers typically invest their films with warmth and hope, speaking profoundly of the transformational potential of individual kindness in an inhumane world.
So after my mini-retrospective, I was delighted to learn that the Dardennes’ 11th feature, Young Ahmed, was dropping on major streaming services this week. With COVID-19 shuttering local arthouse theaters, I wasn’t able to see it on the big screen, despite its Best Director prize at Cannes last year.
While Young Ahmed doesn’t quite achieve the top tier of Dardenne films – it relies on too many of the brothers’ familiar plot devices for its climax – this is still superb humanistic storytelling and the best new film I’ve seen in 2020.
Its title character is an adolescent Muslim boy, the film a suspense-filled battle for his conscience and devotion. Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) has fallen under the sway of a charismatic neighborhood imam (Othmane Moumen). His single mother (Claire Bodson) laments that she doesn’t recognize her son any more, as he shames her for her social drinking, calls his non-hijab-wearing sister a slut, and labels a formerly beloved teacher (Myriam Akheddiou) an apostate for wanting to teach Arabic through pop songs rather than the Koran.
Inspired by his imam’s talk of jihad and a cousin who died a “martyr” overseas, Ahmed makes a violent attack of his own in the name of religious purity, landing him in juvenile detention. From here, it becomes a question of whether religious intolerance or humanistic values will carry the day. The latter are represented in the moderate-to-liberal religion of Ahmed’s mother and his teacher, as well as the kindness of his mentors in juvie.
Like The Kid with a Bike, a minor but hardly insignificant aspect of Young Ahmed is its illustration of the beneficent effects of government institutions when led with charity. Ahmed’s detention center has a “philosophy advisor” who determines that his religious poster and books are not incendiary. Ahmed regularly meets with a psychologist, while spending his days at a dairy farm that employs troubled kids. (During an informative press conference following their film’s premiere at Cannes, the Dardennes alluded to their consultations with mental health professionals working with radicalized youth, to ensure they got these details right.)
Young Ahmed is full of such authenticating details. Its filming locales feel fully lived-in, and just as crucial, Ahmed feels like a real kid. His adolescent self-righteousness will hit uncomfortably close to home for anyone who converted to religious fundamentalism at that age. Idir Ben Addi (impressively, in his feature debut) infuses Ahmed with a teen’s awkwardness in a fast-changing body: an ungainly gallop during a relay race, his downward gaze, his fixation on purity and cleanliness that verges on OCD. Ben Addi also plays him with an adolescent’s inwardness, so we’re not sure if his claims of transformation at the detention center are sincere, or a deceptive ploy so he can return to violent action.
The intimacy of the Dardennes’ camerawork – their close-ups and up-close following shots – increases our investment in Ahmed’s wellbeing. The lack of external music cues, typical to their films, makes our reactions feel natural, not manipulated.
There’s also some pleasingly subtle symbolism that almost unconsciously enhances the themes of Young Ahmed. His work with calves on the farm, warming their milk so it’s the same temperature as their mothers’ udders, alludes to the importance of nurturance. More significant is another farm scene, where Louise, a girl his age, playfully takes off his glasses. When she asks “do you prefer me hazy,” it speaks to the dehumanizing misogyny of his fundamentalism.
More importantly, her question speaks to the imperative of seeing people clearly to understand and care for them. In the aforementioned Cannes press conference, the Dardennes expostulated on their mandate to love their characters, as they write their scripts and direct their films. Their successful achievement of this imperative makes their films – and Young Ahmed – essential humanist viewing.
(Young Ahmed is available to stream through major services like Amazon and Apple.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )