The Dardenne brothers are respected auteurs for their social realist dramas but it feels like they weren’t the right ones to tackle this story of young idealism turned into fundamentalism.
Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) is a quiet kid who is dedicated to his Muslim faith, assiduously preparing for prayer and attending a mosque where he has become a helper for Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen). Ahmed’s mother (Claire Bodson) despairs as he has gone from playing video games one month to being obsessed with prayer the next. He berates her for not wearing a hijab and for drinking alcohol. The Imam accuses Ahmed’s homework program teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) as being an apostate because she wants to teach the children modern Arabic, rather than only learning it only through study of the Quran.
We don’t really understand what has made Ahmed a sudden radical as we are thrown into the middle of the story. His cousin has died a martyr and the Imam is a forceful and charismatic character, spouting radical ideas that Ahmed doesn’t have the worldliness to understand might not be meant to be taken literally. His change is maybe is not so unusual. Adolescence is a time where we believe in black-and-white and want certainty in a world that seems overwhelmingly nuanced. But Ahmed is a Muslim so his idealism leads quickly to violence.
Islam seems to be a too easy a plot device to explain how obstinate idealism and a lack of empathy and worldliness turns disagreement into violence. Other than the first act, Ahmed’s faith seems a perfunctory excuse for his tunnel vision and refusal to listen to anyone. His sullen demeanour and dogged obstinacy seem rooted as much in masculine entitlement as spiritual faith and it makes him a relentlessly unlikable character.
I have read a few reviews that call the ending unearned and it’s a good way to describe it. It lets down a story that is well-meaning and well crafted. It feels like the Dardennes have chosen a difficult topic but failed to transcend stereotypes or understand how to give it depth and meaning.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.