Patrick Preziosi on Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s ‘Young Ahmed’ (2019)
Ever since their breakthrough onto the world film stage with 1996’s La Promesse / The Promise, the directorial style of fraternal Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has been crystallised into one of the most formidable and downright reliable cinematic institutions. A continual search for perfection holds more importance than tonal or thematic shifts to the Dardennes, and every subsequent project feels like a whittling down of everything that preceded, an eternal quest towards filmic purity built on now-recognisable elements.
Although each Dardennes film is an assemblage of their documentary-borne techniques, they are anything but interchangeable. They are the kinds of narratives that are anchored in the characters onscreen, so even if the handheld camerawork and Liege, Belgium settings repeat themselves, each film lives and dies by the story they’ve decided to tell.
Young Ahmed / Le Jeune Ahmed, their newest entry, is out the barrel just like many Dardennes films prior, the camera attaching itself to a young Muslim boy, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), who is ducking out of an afterschool centre for homework help, paying little attention to the present figure of authority, Madam Inès (Myriem Akheddiou). His intense focus bordering on tunnel-vision recalls another young Dardennes protagonist, Cyril from 2011’s razor-sharp The Kid With a Bike / Le gamin au vélo. Despite Cyril’s inherent corruptibility and his occasional inability to listen, he initially retains absolute innocence compared to Ahmed, who instead of attempting to track down an absent father (somewhat similarly, his has passed away), is slowly becoming radicalised, with intent to kill the “apostate” Inès, who is accused of disrespecting her own religion.
The premise of Young Ahmed caused a rightful stir when it was announced as part of the lineup at Cannes (of which the brothers won the Best Director Award for this film). The film itself, quite disappointingly, doesn’t alleviate any reservations one may have with two elderly European men tackling the knotty issues of contemporary Islamic youth in Europe, and in fact perpetuates them, as it continues to fall back on a tired narrative of extremism through its entirety.
Thankfully, there’s no overt demonisation of the local Imam, who is responsible for influencing the bulk of Ahmed’s belief system, and generally seems to care for the boy, but never actually pushes the boy to kill his teacher, despite possessing some conservative ideals on the roles of women. This jarring, internal push for violence within Ahmed is more inscrutable. Perhaps it’s a conflation of the local Imam’s teachings, and another Imam that Ahmed finds online, who pledges martyrdom and immediate jihad (though this one is never mentioned afterwards); it could also be the result of a lazy script foregrounding context to cover up some pretty thinly developed ideas of forgiveness, a moral quandary the Dardennes usually execute in spades.
In fact, Young Ahmed may be the Dardennes film most defined by its establishing points, rather than featuring that past thrill of grasping to fit together the pieces of who’s who, and why they do what they do, such as in, say, Rosetta (1999) or Two Days, One Night / Deux jours, une nuit (2014). Though the film starts off firmly in medias-res, it suddenly crashes into a disastrous (both within the story at hand, and in regards to the writing) family dinner. Ahmed’s mother expresses frustrations with how her son refuses to shake hands with his teacher (his devout Islam won’t allow him to touch a woman), considering she’s aided considerably with his dyslexia; Ahmed responds by calling her a drunk, and somehow manages to also accuse his barely-seen sister of being a slut. The machinations of a “troubled” family are working at full force, and are abruptly dispelled when the film relocates itself to the juvenile detention centre Ahmed is sent to after he tries — and fails — to kill Inès with a knife he’d hidden in his sock.
Another consistent preoccupation of the Dardennes, this public relief system that Ahmed finds himself in, suggests flashes of a different, potentially brilliant film. There’s an unspoken tension between Ahmed, his caseworker, and the more general employees, considering the accommodations that have to be made for a young, devoutly Islamic boy. The unfortunate, and frankly, unwelcome framing device continues to permeate the film, as Ahmed maintains his dedication to the task that landed him in custody in the first place. He sharpens a stolen toothbrush into a shiv, and feigns acceptance to his onsite psychologist in hopes of granting him a meeting with Inès.
Even outside the Dardennes fumbling through a story stemming from a Muslim milieu, there’s a glut of moments that feel culled directly from some of their most successful works, almost so explicitly that it’s impossible to approach Young Ahmed on its own terms. Though it’s been their practice for over two decades now, this specific go-round feels like a game of Dardennes Mad-Libs: drunk parent here, tearful plea for forgiveness there, and maybe even a fall from a great height (a moment so perfectly unexpected and suddenly inevitable in The Kid With a Bike that its almost tarnished by its rehashing here).
A shame too, considering that the prime casting of Addi continues the brothers’ streak of harnessing the power of non-professional actors. His Ahmed is one of apparent pubescence, possessing a palpable discomfort not only with his surroundings but with his own body. He runs relay races with an awkward gait, and in a heartbreaking turn, subtly avoids a friendly dog belonging to the farm he does his required community work at. And as the Dardennes value chronicling physical processes in all their films, there’s a bounty of shots capturing him working, whether it be fashioning a rig out of rubber-bands to keep his glasses from falling, or transporting buckets of water across the farm.
However, as Young Ahmed sets up a spiritual context steeped in the mundane, Ahmed’s redemption through secular work retains an air of finger-pointing. Where they once achieved transcendence through the grayscale lens of menial labour, the Dardennes ultimately fail Ahmed, focusing more on manipulating our own reactions, choosing a set of buzz-making establishing points, practically flaunting an uncharacteristic lack of empathy and understanding.
Young Ahmed screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.