Review: Young Ahmed

You have to hand it to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian filmmaking brothers whose dramas make difficult socioeconomic issues relatable on a personal level. Despite the dozens of awards they’ve received and a reputation for unsentimentalized realism that even Ken Loach can’t approach, they forge ahead by trying to find ever more difficult subject mattter. Young Ahmed may be the most problematic theme they’ve ever tackled, which is probably why it’s also one of their most frustrating movies.

The title character (Idir Ben Addi) is an adolescent living in a small Belgian town who is receiving tutorials in Islamic thought from a radical imam (Othmane Mouman). The imam’s teachings are purposely divisive in that he thinks all humans, whether Muslims or not, do not live up to his high moral standards. The world, in other words, is a tower of apostasy that needs to be torn down, and jihad is the instrument of this destruction. Ahmed is seen as the perfect vessel for the imam’s discursions, young and impressive. He despairs of his single mother’s drinking, and even finds fault with his Arabic teacher, Ines (Myriem Akheddiuo), for trying to make the study of the language pleasurable through the use of blasphemous pop music in her classes. Ines sees the boy’s resentments and correctly interprets it as a combination of sexual frustration and lack of positive reinforcement. With a parent distracted by the difficulties of navigating a harsh economic reality while being a member of a minority, Ahmed has only the imam to look up to, and the imam counts on and manipulates such loyalty.

Eventually, Ahmed’s radicalization reaches a violent breaking point, and up to this juncture the Dardennes have exploited their patented tracking shots to full dramatic effect. The scene where Ahmed acts on his frustrations is one of the more shocking in the brothers’ body of work, but also points up how impossible it is to really convey what is going on in Ahmed’s mind. The Dardennes have often used troubled adolescents as protagonists, and the power of their storytelling was in their ability to build a unique personality through behaviors and dialogue that felt natural rather than contrived. But Ahmed is something of a cipher, a blank slate by design for whom the imam can write over. There is no development to Ahmed’s radicalization because we don’t really understand where he came from emotionally. It’s apparent the Dardennes are being cautious more than anything else. They naturally are wary of seeming to be anti-Islamists, even though the portrayal of the imam contains certain uncomfortable stereotypes. In many ways, the plotting of Young Ahmed is the most conventionally inventive in the Dardennes’ filmography, but the boy in the bubble doesn’t really invite much empathy, which is vital to a story like this. The powerful ending, which sees Ahmed, sent to a youth farm for his transgressions, sinking further into his religious self-absoption before coming out the other end changed, is too much too late, as if, perplexed by the enormity of the movie’s aims, the brothers succumbed to melodrama out of desperation.

In French and Arabic. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Young Ahmed home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Les Films Du Fleuve – Archipel 35 – France 2 Cinema – Proximus – RTBF

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