From a young age, I was a movie nut, watching whatever was on TV — slashed to bits, I learned later, to accommodate commercials — while also attending the neighborhood cinema at least once each week. Movie-going intensified in my teens as I added uncut Hollywood classics and European art films that were being shown at the revival houses that sprang up in the city in the 1950s and '60s. My college years were even more focused on film — as an extracurricular activity, that is, since I was skeptical about the efficacy of taking courses on the subject or giving out degrees to people just for watching movies.
My interest continued through the early part of my marriage; but some time in the 1980s, I grew weary of the kind of product being created, especially in Hollywood (and sometimes, even in Europe and elsewhere in the world). Inane comedies and nonstop action films were not my cup of tea. Add to this the crowds that swamped the cineplex, and movie-going lost any glamour it once had. So my wife and I simply stopped going.
Recently, however, I was struck by the sense that I'd missed out on lots of fine work done over the 1990s and 2000s, and which I'd dismissed out of hand. And since viewing movies has been transformed by technology and is now far easier than schlepping to the strip mall, I could reconnect with some of the old classics being released on pristine DVDs and catch up with artists I'd bypassed.
Philosophy Meets Theater
One of the stellar movie-making teams I'd overlooked is made up of two Belgian brothers named Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. They began by making rigorous, unglamorous documentaries with clear left-wing political overtones beginning in the late 1970s and '80s (not many of which made it to U.S. screens), and only turned to feature films in the mid-1990s. But the five major works they've produced over the last decade-and-a-half — La Promesse, Rosetta, Le Fils, L'Enfant and Le Silence de Lorna — clearly belong among the classic motion pictures of world cinema.
Two books have appeared recently about the Dardennes: Committed Cinema, a collection of interviews and essays edited by longtime film critic Bert Cardulo, issued by Cambridge Scholars Publishers; and a full-length study of the brothers and their films titled simply Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne by Joseph Mai, published by the University of Illinois Press in its estimable Contemporary Film Directors series.
Mai, an assistant professor of French at Clemson University, tells us that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were born (1951 and 1954, respectively) in the French-speaking small Belgian town of Engis, along the river Meuse. One of the most important influences on the brothers, according to Mai, was the Catholic grade school they attended in Seraing, a city where many of their films are set.
"Though the brothers do not seem to have been particularly devout," writes the author, "they assimilated stories of the Bible, traces of which can be found throughout their films. Their passion for the cinema was also stoked at the school, where one of the French professors … would transform a chapel into a cinema, screening heady films by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Here they also discovered Robert Bresson's Mouchette and Au hasard Balthazar, to which they pay homage on several occasions."
When they left Seraing for university in the early '70s, Luc studied philosophy and Jean-Pierre pursued theater, an interest the brothers shared. After their studies, they worked for the dynamic theater director Armand Gatti, whose outlook informs many of their early politically pointed documentaries.
Considering all of this information, why then is a writer for a Jewish paper considering this duo during this most sacred period in the Jewish calendar? The reason is simple: By Luc Dardenne's own admission, he and his brother have been highly influenced by one of the foremost post-Holocaust Jewish philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas. All of their films contain not only biblical motifs, but animate — though not in any heavy-handed way — principles of the Levinasian philosophy.
Born in 1906 in Lithuania, Levinas spent most of World War II in a German labor camp (and lost several members of his family in the Holocaust). According to Doug Cummins in his essay "The Brothers Dardenne: Responding to the Face of the Other," included in Committed Cinema, "After the war, Levinas developed an original philosophy of ethics in which he challenged Western notions of ontology (the study of being) and rationality. Previously, ethics was thought to be a rational extrapolation of the autonomous individual, but Levinas claimed such calculation negated the mystery of others, reducing them to 'knowable' — and potentially expendable — sameness. He reversed the trend, insisting that the face-to-face encounter with the other is what defines the individual. Levinas taught that ethics initiates philosophy, suggesting that the other — someone who cannot be rationalized, neutralized, or possessed — demands a necessary response, a necessary responsibility that determines what it means to be human. For Levinas, this emphasized the value of human life; since the self exists only in relation to the other, the face of the other implicitly commands, 'Thou shall not kill.' "
All of the Dardennes' films, in their most elemental sense, are about the face-to-face encounter.
Because of space limitations, I can consider only one of the brothers' films. Their first, La Promesse, is, in fact, a perfect example of how Levinas has influenced them.
The veteran film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum lays out the plot of the Dardennes' first feature film in his piece titled "Buried Clues, True Grit," which is included in Committed Cinema. The film, set in Seraing, where the filmmakers were educated as children, concerns a 15-year-old boy named Igor (the very young Jérémie Regnier, who became a central actor in the Dardennes' movies). He is the "son of a single parent named Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a slum landlord who rents to recently arrived immigrants, some of them illegal. … Igor works as an apprentice at a garage and filling station whenever he isn't called away to help his father, but he's called away so often that he doesn't hold the job for long."
After Igor's work situation is introduced, he is shown leaving early, hopping into his father's van. They then pick up "a fresh batch of immigrants and their belongings," including a woman from Burkina Faso, Assita, and her baby son; her husband, Amidou, is already one of Roger's tenants.
Amidou is paying off a gambling debt by working for Roger in a structure adjacent to the apartment building. A labor inspector turns up one morning unexpectedly, and Igor, who's lost his job at the garage, is told by his father to quickly alert the workers. In the rush, Amidou falls from a scaffold. "Close to death," writes Rosenbaum, "he asks Igor to promise to take care of his wife and child, and Igor agrees. Igor wants to take [the injured man] to the hospital, but Roger, fearing reprisals by immigration authorities, hides Amidou's body instead, and later gets Igor to help bury him under cement." They then lie to his wife about the man's whereabouts.
As Rosenbaum points out, the burial is the film's "turning point, because afterward Igor proceeds in every way he knows to honor his promise to Amidou." This means that at one point Igor must reject his father and eventually tell Assita the truth about her husband's death. This young man must, in essence, see and accept "the other" that this woman from Burkina Faso so clearly represents.
All of Mai's analyses examine, without didacticism, how the camera work and camera positioning — more than words, in fact (for they are few in Dardenne scripts) — hold the keys to the meanings of these somber but highly rewarding films. Like all good cinema books, both of these volumes help you relive the experience of watching the movies while broadening your sense of their importance as both artworks and human documents.