Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne remain among my favorite contemporary filmmakers and every new movie immediately finds itself high on my must-see list. The brothers are known for telling stories through an intensely realistic lens, often honing in on the disenfranchised working class and their everyday circumstances. The Dardennes have a restrained and observant style, reminiscent of the great French auteur Robert Bresson, but with slightly busier compositions and a considerably more fluid camera.
The Dardennes again bring their subdued, clear-eyed approach to their latest film “Young Ahmed”. A Cannes Film Festival winner for Best Director, “Young Ahmed” shares many of the same traits of their previous films, but they’ve never tackled subject matter quite like this. Their story centers on a 13-year-old Belgian boy named Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a young Muslim who has been radicalized by a local imam (Othmane Moumen). Right out of the gate you realize this a tricky and sensitive material. But it’s also a case where the Dardennes’ distinctly grounded style makes them more capable to tackle it than many of their filmmaking contemporaries.
By the time we meet Ahmed he has already committed himself to the imam’s teaching and is deeply devout when it comes to prayer and study. His strict interpretations can be seen in nearly every part of his daily life. From his refusal to shake the hand of his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) down to the precise way in which he washes his hands. It doesn’t take long to notice other concerning things about Ahmed, most notably that he’s a somber and serious boy who never cracks smile. He’s obviously impressionable and a dramatically different person than he once was. We also notice the wedge his religious zeal has put between him and his family, particularly his heartbroken single mother (Claire Bodson).
It all culminates in an ill-advised and utterly botched violent act that sees Ahmed arrested and sent to a youth detention and rehabilitation center. It’s here that the film takes an unexpected turn and begins to examine Ahmed from a different perspective. While in the facility his caseworker and staff engage in a strategically subtle form of intervention, allowing Ahmed to pray but involving him in activities that may help him reconnect with the kid he once was.
Storywise it sounds rudimentary, but throughout the film’s second half the Dardennes keep us wondering how far Ahmed has fallen down the rabbit hole. How deeply rooted are his convictions? Are the activities at the rehab center having any effect? We don’t know because Ahmed is such a hard book to read – never emotional and rarely interested in anything other than his prayer time. But we see cracks, especially when he meets a flirtatious young girl named Louise (Victoria Bluck). Still the Dardennes and their lead actor never tip their hand. It’s an especially impressive feat for Idir Ben Addi considering he’s in practically every scene.
“Young Ahmed” is yet another Dardenne brothers film that highlights their unique harmony of story and style. It’s a quietly affecting drama stripped of artifice and that fully embraces their naturalistic point-of-view. Interestingly it doesn’t always have the same intimacy as some of the brothers’ best films, but it still examines humanity through their uniquely personal lens. That makes “Young Ahmed” another great addition to their already fascinating catalog of movies.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Interested! I don’t think I’ve seen any of their films so will have to check them out.
Please do. I’m a huge fan of their work. Very understated and truthful storytelling.
The Dardennes are amazing. All those years ago on my review of Two Days, One Night and you were encouraging me to check out their The Kid with the Bike. Well here we are in 2021 and me still not having seen it. Lol! I gotta think though one of these days I’lm going to make a run through their entire catalogue. Something I’ve been really wanting to do with Asghar Farhadi as well ever since seeing About Elly.
Two tremendous filmmakers. Their work has always spoken to me. I also loved The Unknown Girl. It’s another movie of theirs you should search out.
I do want to see this as I missed the chance to see the last film The Unknown Girl by the Dardenne Brothers as I like pretty much I’ve seen from them since La Promesse. I just love their understated filmmaking style and their emphasis to make it feel and be real but also find some kind of hope no matter how dreary their films can be.
I loved The Unknown Girl (more than most I think) and it actually made my top 10 that year. I’m pretty much gonna watch anything they make.
Same here. I love their films. Plus, they stick with what works in their filmmaking style and I admire the fact that they’ll get a seasoned pro every once in a while like Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and knock it out of the fucking park.
Haven’t seen anything by them yet.
Oh you should look them up. Brilliant filmmakers.