CANNES, France—In July 2018, a young Muslim woman was the victim of a vicious hate crime in a small Belgian town near Brussels. According to press reports, assailants tore off the woman’s headscarf and outer garments, engraved a cross on her body, and called her a “dirty Arab” as they departed. This assault was only one of many incidents of burgeoning anti-Muslim violence throughout Belgium, as well as Europe in general, during 2018.
Instead of focusing on crimes of this nature, Young Ahmed, the new film by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which premiered in competition at Cannes on Monday, concentrates on the travails of a troubled Muslim teen in a similarly small town who, after becoming a disciple of a fundamentalist imam, attempts to murder his liberal Muslim teacher.
There is of course nothing inherently wrongheaded or Islamophobic about making a film about rigid fundamentalism. The problem with Young Ahmed, however, is that the Dardennes, known for compassionate depictions of alienated working-class characters (and the winners of Cannes’s coveted Palme d‘Or on two occasions) stack the deck by making their anti-hero thoroughly dislikable—and, in their own words, “inscrutable.” Conversely, the movie’s adults, especially the police and social service administrators, appear to have only the best intentions as they strive to reform a zealot, who turns out to be considerably more fanatical than the imam who inspires his campaign against “apostates.”
The Belgian leftists, who created such a nuanced portrait of an impoverished young waffle-peddler in Rosetta (awarded the Palme d’Or in 1999), fail to make the object of their strained empathy in Young Ahmed much more than a one-dimensional caricature. The origins of his disaffection, whether personal or political, are never sufficiently probed in this lifeless character study.
At the outset, the film sets up a potentially intriguing power struggle between the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) and his exasperated instructor, Madame Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), a woman who suggests employing music to teach both modern Arabic and Koranic verses. This gesture stokes Ahmed’s rage—he believes his instructor is ineradicably “impure.” What might have been a stimulating exploration of Islamic doctrinal differences becomes submerged by an overweening concern with Ahmed’s pathology.
After Ahmed’s family more or less gives up on him, most of the film is preoccupied with an array of psychologists, social workers, and cops’ efforts to rehabilitate Ahmed as they urge him to reach out to his victim. Some key sequences take place at a farm, where daily chores such as milking cows are intended to have therapeutic value for wayward adolescents. Ahmed’s romantic attraction to Louise (Victoria Bluck), the daughter of the farm’s owners, while promising to open up the narrative, only leads it down another cul-de-sac. After the flirtatious Louise dares to kiss Ahmed, he implores her to convert to Islam. When she refuses, he scorns her as merely another infidel.
In the film’s climactic sequence, some sort of reconciliation between Ahmed and Inès seems imminent, but is more or less stymied. With all of the screen time devoted to presenting Ahmed as the personification of religious fanaticism, the Dardennes’ stab at Christian forgiveness falls flat.
What’s truly depressing about Young Ahmed is the filmmakers’ capitulation to a schematic analysis of Islamism that is completely unedifying. Other Dardenne Brothers films such as La Promesse or L’Enfant deal with characters grappling with complex moral choices. Ahmed, by contrast, is a static abstraction. When Arab filmmakers have dealt with Islamism, the results have frequently been subtler than Young Ahmed’s reductive approach. The Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God, for example, deftly depicts the social deprivation that led, at least partially, to the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombings.
A rare misstep for the Dardenne Brothers. It seems safe to say (although one never knows; I could end up eating my words) that Young Ahmed will not win the siblings another Palme d’Or in 2019.