Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may well be called the Mike Leighs of Belgium. Like the legendary British auteur, Leigh, the Belgian brothers have been creating socially evocative dramas that can also be quite disturbing. They won two Palm d'Ors at Cannes. Their 1999 Rosetta – told us the story of a 17-year-old girl who struggles with unemployment and an alcoholic, abusive mother. In 2005 came The Child in which a young husband, driven by poverty and misplaced sense of compassion, sells his new-born baby without its mother's knowledge.
With his latest work, Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc step into a very dangerous territory, and the movie got them the Best Director Palm at Cannes this year. Part of the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival, Young Ahmed is dark, almost depressing. While the brother's earlier movies – The Son, The Kid with a Bike and even The Child – have a trace of optimism running through them, Young Ahmed is beyond this comfort.
Ahmed (essayed with natural grace and disarming ease by Idir Ben Addi) begins to get fond of an imam (Othmane Moumen), who turns out to an extremist with radical ideas. He teaches the impressionable and vulnerable lad a kind of ideology that does him no good.
Ahmed begins to hate the very behaviour he used to find normal. At school, he refuses to shake hands with his teacher, Ines (Myriem Akheddiou), because she is a woman. At home, he abuses his English mother for drinking alcohol. He is so obsessed with his own religious purity that when a girl wants to be friends with him, he asks her to convert to Islam.
Unfortunately, Young Ahmed seems far-fetched and even harsh in a certain way. Different from the directors' earlier works that shed some light at the end of the tunnel, their latest outing offers no such hope. Worse, Young Ahmed confronts us with dangerous dilemmas. The boy is seduced into the blind and irrational beliefs of the Imam, and the grip is so tight that the teacher finds it impossible to free Ahmed from the clutches.
A painful and meaningless tug-of-war ensues, and here there are no winners. Only losers, and Ahmed is one.
(Author, Commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Mumbai Film Festival )
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