Young Ahmed is an misguided effort in the Dardennes’ usually rock solid filmography.
Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne have created a corpus of films strong enough to build the case that they are among the most important European directors working of the past two decades; their formal rigor and the way in which their approach has influenced so many filmmakers with similar cinematographic sensibilities is undeniable. One of the Dardennes most interesting characteristics, though, is their propensity for compassion for every character that they put on the screen, from a child murderer, to a kidnapper, to a man won’t budge in a work negotiation. All people are capable of either redeeming themselves or being forgiven. All of that was true, at least, until now. The Dardennes’ latest film — which premiered at this year’s Cannes festival, was met with a mixed reception and loads of controversy — features a young Muslim man, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), who tries to murder his apostate teacher for using songs and other methods, as opposed to strictly the Quran.
In many ways, Young Ahmed follows a moral principle similar to that of Shunji Iwai’s much more successful, and gut-wrenching, All About Lily Chou Chou: it’s about the way in which children are easily manipulated when confronted with bad influences, and especially when those circumstances are compounded by mental instability. While this ambition is commendable, and their efforts can be pointed — especially when it comes to the way they perceive institutions and programs meant to help children, like Ahmed, who feel alienated by society — their Christian point of view (widely recognized and commented on throughout their careers) impedes sincere attachment to Ahmed, disallowing that glimpse of redemption. Ahmed’s blind devotion to his religion is rendered strange and inherently problematic, especially when it comes down to what society believes the boundaries between religion and public life should be. There is an intention here to push forward and attack these questions, but the way the Dardennes do it is brash and at times difficult to watch; their lack of empathy for Ahmed, evidenced by the amount of punishment he has to go through, seems a bit too much, especially in context with the directors’ previous films.
Published as part of February 2020’s Before We Vanish.