Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cinema 2006: Responsibility and Redemption

L'Enfant (The Child) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

While watching the Dardenne brothers' latest film, I was reminded of Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) (1948). Like the Italian Neo-Realism masterpiece, this film tells a very intimate story one boy (or child), Bruno. However, instead of falling victim to the unfortunate events, this film depicts this character (played by Jeremie Renier) as the catalyst of actions that hurt himself, and more importantly, his girlfriend and child. In this film, the camera observes him and those around him so closely that as he makes mistake after mistake, what likely begins as passing judgement on Bruno evolves to sadness as we see the results of his actions and unwillingness to change.

Adopting a more organic approach to depicting Bruno, which includes hand-held camera work and very long takes, the Dardennes familiarize viewers with the nuance of this character, as if allowing them to peer right into his soul. But despite filling the story and images with heavy symbolism, the directors aren't overt when it comes to messages. Instead, their camera looks upon Bruno lovingly, as a parent would of a child who continues making mistakes. At the same time, as close as the camera gets to the boy's relationship with his girlfriend and following his every day actions, it never feels instrusive, and as the story evolves, its manner of capturing his action does as well.

While the film embodies many of the characteristics of a morality tale, it doesn't feel nearly as staged or preachy. As the story reaches its conclusion, we see the slightest bit of change in the boy's eyes as he attempts to take responsibility, but the story doesn't have Bruno becoming a different person or succeeding in the end. Rather, it shows him taking a step, which means much more because of how the camera has observed and depicted him as the film reaches its final heartbreaking and redemptive scene.

L'Enfant could have very easily been a fluffy inspirational redemption story, but, even though the story progresses along such a line of plotting, the film is more genuine because of how it follows Bruno so intimately while avoiding the invitation for the viewer to pass moral judgement. By subtly inviting the viewer to contemplate issues of responsibility and the consequences of what may seem to be simple but potentially very destructive decisions through the (real and symbolic) actions of Bruno, the Dardennes elevate the story beyond a phony morality tale that instructs its viewers how to think and feel.

L'Enfant is a close study of a person who makes wrong choices and slowly inches his way towards understanding his own motivations and how he hurts those around him. The Dardennes simple trick is in creating a narrative that (unlike other narratives) positions viewers not to be judging voyeurs, but to empathize with person who makes bad decisions. That empathy results from stylistic choices, true, but it really arises from the viewer's acknowledgement that every person makes wrong decisions. Every father may not abandon his son or mistreat his loved ones on the scale that Bruno does, but seeing his story depicted so honestly taps into all the little things people do to arrive at the same destination that Bruno does.

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