For all the ways Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are rightly hailed as masterful contemporary realists with an abiding compassion for society’s fringe strugglers — the poor, the undocumented, the criminal, the victimized — they’ve just as easily earned their place as some of the greatest suspense directors of all time.
Their street-level stories, frequent Cannes winners since 1999’s “Rosetta,” typically hinge on a central desperation tied to simple survival, but when played out with their trademark visual restlessness and character-driven purposefulness, they’re often as nail-biting as any genre exercise or melodrama.
Which makes “Young Ahmed,” the pair’s latest dispatch from the viewpoint of a troubled soul — in this case, a 13-year-old Belgian boy in the dangerous throes of religious fanaticism — both a typically unnerving entry in their canon, and a strangely distancing one, given the impenetrability of its lead’s self-destructiveness.
It’s a movie one might imagine dissatisfying both Muslims up in arms about insensitive portrayals and Islamophobes looking to see their fears reinforced, which may of course be the point of the directors’ nonjudgmental tone. That doesn’t necessarily deliver their movie, however, as a pointed portrait, even as it carries us effortlessly on a vessel of unassailable technique.
That style of motion and consequence is a grabber from the get-go, as we meet Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) at school in an anxious mode, avoiding the goodbye handshake of his attentive female teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) as he bolts class to make it to the mosque in time. There, he joins in prayers with a young hardline imam (Othmane Moumen) under whose spell both Ahmed’s teacher and his widowed mother (Claire Bodson) believe the boy has fallen.
A curly-haired, bespectacled kid with an inward demeanor — like he’s constantly in a state of avoidance, but also intensely focused — Ahmed is obsessed with the purity of a faith we learn is only a recent preoccupation. In its more harmless manifestation, it means a poster-less bedroom, devotion to prayer times, and ritualized ablutions. Around his family, it becomes a lashing out, calling his concerned mom a drunk and his older sister a slut.
But Ahmed’s rigidity takes a resolutely darker turn when the imam he idolizes targets Inès as an apostate for speaking against the mosque and for having a Jewish boyfriend, and Ahmed attempts to murder her in a fumbling attack with a hidden knife.
As “Young Ahmed” moves, quickly, to its subject’s life in a custodial rehab center, he becomes an even more curious figure in our minds, in that we’re primed to look for the redemption these kinds of movie narratives usually seek, but also prepared for that indescribable something we also fear when adolescents’ lives are bounced between institutions bent on changing behavior — a kind of hardening. A glimmer of something hopeful arises in how Ahmed responds to being sent to work on a couple’s farm, where their friendly, same-aged daughter (Victoria Bluck) takes a liking to him, and he doesn’t immediately bristle.
In other exchanges with his caseworker (Olivier Bonnaud) or his visiting mother, however, there’s the nagging sense that a performance is being given, that the road back for Ahmed might be longer than anyone realizes. Nothing’s made terribly clear to us, though, about the origins of Ahmed’s radicalism, just what he believes is within reach of him right now, and what he needs to do to achieve it.
The Dardennes have proven to be expert at eliciting galvanizing turns from nonprofessionals, and with Ben Addi they continue that streak. Though the singlemindedness on display isn’t the most difficult of mindsets to convey, the young lead’s mix of awkwardness and alertness is never less than mesmerizing, giving you the sense that on one level, Ahmed sees himself as the protagonist in a life-or-death story.
When coupled with the filmmakers’ established way with intimately hairy scenarios — in this case, aided by cinematographer Benoit Dervaux’s up-close lensing and Tristan Meunier’s tight editing — that aspect of Ahmed’s story, especially when the jittery final act kicks in, is commendably nerve-racking.
And yet that never feels quite enough to distinguish “Young Ahmed” as uniquely illuminative about its impenetrable main character’s journey, even if the last moments attempt a kind of Bresson-ian grace. Is it adolescence the Dardennes are exploring? Or specifically fatherless adolescence? Is it Islam? Islam in a western country? Or all religions anywhere?
For perhaps the first time in the brothers’ career, one of their movies feels like it’s missing a key something: an understanding, or an inquisitiveness, or perhaps that framing known as judgment. Maybe what’s missing in “Young Ahmed” is what the movie is ultimately about — the thing we may never know about the grip of extremism, any kind of extremism, and why it vexes us. The problem is that it’s one thing for a character to confound us, and another for the movie around him to do so.