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SON, THE (Fils, Le)(director/writer/producer: Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne; cinematographer: Alain Marcoen; editor: Marie-Helene Dozo; cast: Olivier Gourmet (Olivier), Morgan Marinne (Francis), Isabella Soupart (Magali), Remy Renaud (Philippo), Nassim Hassaini (Omar), Annette Closset (Training Center Director); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Denis Freyd; New Yorker Films; 2002-Belgium, In French with English subtitles)
“The simple but persuasive social drama at some point grabs your attention and never lets go.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Thisis the longtime documentary filmmakers, the Belgium brother’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s, stunning follow up to La Promesse and the Palme D’Or winner Rosetta. It’s an intense and unblinking realistic study of a middle-aged carpentry teacher at a center for troubled boys coming to terms in a spiritual sense with who he really is and how he feels about life. The location is some unnamed bleak Belgian city, where the brothers ask the viewer to discover for themselves what is right or wrong in the ethical questions they unleash.

Olivier (Gourmet) is a bit gruff but undoubtedly a fair-minded and fine teacher, who is first seen rejecting a student his director introduces him to because he says his four students are enough. But the student’s presence in the center seems to rattle him and for the next half an hour or so we see a lot of neck shots of him as he is obsessively spying on that sullen 16-year-old Francis (Morgan Marinne), who gets enrolled in a welding class even though he prefers carpentry. In that time Olivier receives a visit in his workshop from his filling shop clerk ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart), who tells him she’s getting remarried and is pregnant. She wonders why he’s working at the vocational center and not with his successful brother who owns a saw-mill, and he responds by saying the job makes him feel useful. He then greatly upsets her with the news that the new kid in the center is the one who strangled to death their child five years ago and has just been released from the juvenile prison at Fraipont. She breaks down at the possible thought of the unapologetic murderer being taught by the father of the son he murdered.

Later on the teacher relents and decides to take Francis on as a pupil for a reason he doesn’t quite know, and though struggling to keep his heavy heart under control he teaches him the trade with the same objective care he teaches the others (which might be viewed as a deceit). The film builds in psychological tension to the scene where the teacher takes Francis, who is unaware of the secret that bonds him to the teacher, out to his brother’s country saw-mill to learn about wood. What Olivier wants to learn is what motivated the youngster to take his child’s life over something as trivial as stealing a radio in a car, and tries questioning the inarticulate youngster. The troubled youngster comes from a broken home and his single parent mother has a boyfriend who doesn’t want him around, which leads him to request Olivier to be his guardian. When asked why by the shaken Olivier, he responds “because you are teaching me a trade.” When Olivier reveals the secret to the boy, both must now dig deep within themselves to handle their emotions. Olivier must wrestle with bitter moral complexities that he has never wrestled with before.

For his brilliant performance, the regular Dardennes performer Olivier Gourmet won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. The film also was official selection at the Cannes Film Festival, New York Film Festival, and Toronto Film Festival.

The simple but persuasive social drama at some point grabs your attention and never lets go. There’s no musical score, instead we are entertained by banging hammers and power saws. The brothers make good use of the handheld camera intrusively showing the teacher in long close-ups, with the magnificent result gained without manipulation is that we are able to clearly read Olivier’s mind and see him agonize over his dilemma. The Dardennes end their film without a cathartic payoff, as they are after a deeper reaction than one conditioned by society or the law or a parent’s sense of justice. What it all means depends solely upon what the viewer brings to the table. It is religious in tone, which means there must be an acceptance of its allegorical story on faith alone. Which is how religion is viewed, anyhow. What forgiveness means to the Christian is fully tested here, as the teacher (a carpenter like Jesus) has to go a long way to find it in his heart to offer such a personal forgiveness. But this film asks even more than that– it asks the teacher to do what few are capable of, returning good for bad in someone who has served his time with society but has not matured to find it in his heart to repent. The outcome is a moving and thought-provoking film. With their uncompromising belief in searching for the truth from within, in this much mined narrative territory, the Dardennes brothers put slicker versions of ‘a parent coming to terms with the murder of a son’ films to shame (even the penetrating “In the Bedroom”).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”