Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed), by Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, presents a perfect lesson in the folly of liberal sentimentality. It takes a clear-eyed look at 13-year-old Muslim Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) and his self-radicalization without blaming politics or religion. The Dardenne brothers avoid blame entirely through their now-familiar Cannes Film Festival multiple-award-winning approach to sociological drama.
The fear and compassion that convulses contemporary Europe are remote in the story of Ahmed’s giving up video games and pop-culture posters to study under a duplicitous Imam (Othmane Moumen), perform daily ablutions, read the Koran, and say his prayers. Ahmed seems a typical teenager in the way he gives over to a new fad, even if his zealous commitment causes him to insult his mother (Claire Bodson), then plan to kill his math teacher (Myriem Akheddiou), whom the Imam has identified as an infidel.
Ahmed is almost embryonic. Curly-haired, bespectacled, with a baby-fat face impassive with confusion, he is also dyslexic and awkward. The man in him is unformed. When defending the imam, a substitute father figure, Ahmed lies on purpose. Walking like a dork as he contemplates meeting and killing his teacher, he is potentially dangerous. His intelligence is expressed in deviousness, not exactly innocence (although he looks harmlessly innocent, like a young Tony Kushner).
The Dardenne brothers are beyond considerations of innocence. They refuse to be shocked by Ahmed’s behavior. Their title suggests they see it as youthful indiscretion rather than a moral issue or a cultural predicament. (The absence of Ahmed’s father is ignored in the same way American liberals minimize the patriarchal absence in black urban families.) Ahmed’s story is distilled so that the bungled assault, his detention at a facility with a psychologist and social workers, and his participation in a work program at a Belgian family’s farm are relayed through a trim, fleet, visual style. The precision of the Dardennes’ narrative is impressive: When called away during a detention-school lesson, Ahmed finishes translating “pas” on a white board — that word implies negativity, a good touch showing his single-minded concentration.
This even-handedness shows a mastery of the classic neorealism style we know from Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero. But this is post-colonial neorealism, made in a culture that prohibits terms such as “Muslim extremist” and that searches for human truth through guilt, not empathy.
As usual, the Dardennes are testing themselves against the limits of their liberalism. Their clean, bracing aesthetic awakens us to the fact that American cinema leans to liberal sanctimony and pity without honest scrutiny or introspection. The Dardennes’ self-awareness is what’s missing from the doctrinaire, partisan, quasi-documentary filmmaking we’re used to.
Perhaps because they are two, the Dardennes don’t contradict themselves but walk a liberal tightrope. When a pretty farm girl (Victoria Bluck) puts her tongue in Ahmed’s mouth, he’s horrified. “I hate my sins as I hate going to hell.” Is fighting his own feelings a sign of alienation? Yet the Dardennes avoid that question by keeping precarious distance, never showing change in Ahmed character — or indicating any expectation Ahmed might feel from the kindnesses shown to him. Instead, the Dardennes move into moral suspense.
Knowing what we know about terrorism, and what we expect from years of movie formula, do we want Ahmed to carry out his plan? It’s not likely that Muslim extremists are ever going to see Young Ahmed. So who is this tightrope-walking character study for? Is this teenage reprobate to be believed the second time he asks forgiveness?
Despite their sophistication, the Dardennes offer sop to the new Europe, awash in liberal pity and sitting-duck weakness.
Young Ahmed is playing as part of KinoNow, a new streaming platform.