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Spiritual cinema

The ‘Coen brothers of Europe’ are quietly making and producing simple moral parables with powerful themes of wrongdoing, hurt, and redemption

Spiritual cinema

Jean-Pierre (in front) and Luc Dardenne (Oliver Schmauch/LAIF/Redux)

About 12 years ago film critic Joel Mayward—then a pastoral intern—googled “Christianity in films” and came across Image Journal’s Top 100 list of films from its Arts and Faith forum.

He decided to start working through the list, renting DVDs from a local video rental store. Several of the films near the top of the list at the time were written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, a Belgian directing, writing, and producing duo. Mayward became obsessed.

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are not widely known in the United States, but they are household names in Europe—in France they are sometimes simply called “the Brothers.” Mayward compares their status to the Coen brothers, who like the Dardennes work somewhat out of the mainstream but have mainstream accolades.

Of the Dardennes’ eight major feature films, two films won the elite Palme d’Or and one took the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Only nine directors have ever won the Palme twice. They’ve also won the Bresson Prize from the Vatican for films depicting the “search for spiritual meaning.”

Aside from their success with the few films they have written and directed, they have also carefully selected films to produce. This year a film they produced had its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which concluded at the end of April. The film, The Elephant and the Butterfly, will hit U.S. theaters in July.

All of their films wrestle with straightforward moral and spiritual questions: In Two Days, One Night, a woman has to convince her co-workers to forgo a bonus so she doesn’t lose her job. The Dardennes focus on those at the bottom of the heap, like a family struggling to survive in a postindustrial town. They address difficult social issues and such themes as wrongdoing, hurt, and redemption. Critics often call their films “moral fables.” Mayward says they’re parables.

Mayward has watched the The Kid with a Bike at least a dozen times. As a former youth pastor, he loved the Dardennes’ coming-of-age stories of middle schoolers, an age that he thinks is often overlooked in cinema. Mayward is now pursuing a Ph.D. in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His dissertation is on the spiritual parables of the Dardennes.

“What they’re trying to do is address political and ethical and religious things without going at it directly,” he said. The Dardennes are part of what he calls a “post-secular” trend in cinema, “swinging the pendulum back away from the Enlightenment.”

Les Films du Fleuve

Cécile de France and Thomas Doret in ‘The Kid with a Bike’ (2011) (Les Films du Fleuve)

The Dardennes were raised Roman Catholic but do not say they are Christian, though some of the films they’ve produced have overt Biblical symbolism. Interviewers often ask about the Christian themes in their work, and the brothers typically insist that they are simply telling stories about real life. They’re both big fans of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

At one point the Dardennes listed their 79 favorite films (yes, 79). Many of them were cinema elite classics from directors like Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson, but they also listed It’s A Wonderful Life. They included as well Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue—a series of 10 films about the Ten Commandments set in Soviet Poland. Mayward says the Dardennes’ style uniquely “addresses the head and the heart at the same time.”

The brothers still live in the town they grew up in, Seraing, Belgium, and they have filmed all their features in that postindustrial area—so the films have a feeling of a place and people that have been abandoned.

Many of the Dardenne films deal with the relationship between parents and children, and especially fathers and sons. Their films are often about children’s moral formation “when adults aren’t necessarily the models for being good,” said Mayward.

The Son of Joseph, or Le Fils de Joseph, is a French film they produced that also had U.S. distribution (see “French resistance,” Nov. 12, 2016). In this dry comedy full of Biblical imagery, a son who is searching for the father he never met is obsessed with a Baroque painting of the sacrifice of Isaac. When he finds his father and sees the man is a terrible person, he decides to enact a reverse Isaac sacrifice. Enter Joseph, an alternate father figure.

In Mayward’s favorite, The Kid with a Bike, which the Dardennes wrote and directed, an 11-year-old boy in a group foster home is desperately searching for his father, who wants no part in his life. You can feel the rejection and hurt on the boy’s skin, the way he ferociously turns away from every person who tries to help him. A hairdresser, who has no connection to the boy and no ostensible reason for loving him since he is such a prickly pear, takes him in and pours unmerited kindness and mercy on him at every point. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

WHEN I SAY, ‘the Dardenne brothers,’ in Europe all the doors open,” said Belgian director Amélie van Elmbt, the director of The Elephant and the Butterfly. With the Dardennes producing, her feature launched onto the Top 10 lists from critics who were covering the festival. It’s a wonderful film on its own. The film now has U.S. distribution, a rarity for the nearly 100 films at the festival.

Van Elmbt was sitting on a sunny rooftop in Chinatown at the end of the Tribeca festival, recalling how she met the Dardennes. She is a young director, but she had worked with the Dardennes’ director of photography, Benoît Dervaux. At one point financing fell through for The Elephant and the Butterfly, and Dervaux suggested she ask the Dardennes to produce the film. They will like the story, he said, which is about an estranged father meeting his 5-year-old daughter for the first time.

Dervaux was right. She sent the Dardennes the script, and a few months later they responded: Of course they would finance the film! “Like it was completely normal,” laughed van Elmbt. “They have their taste, you know. I’m sure if I’m coming with a robot story, they won’t say yes,” she said. To that point, she’s now working with them on another film about adoption in Romania.

 Les Films du Fleuve

Thomas Blanchard and Lina Doillon in ‘The Elephant and the Butterfly’ (2018) ( Les Films du Fleuve)

The Elephant and the Butterfly begins with the single mother of 5-year-old Elsa rushing to catch a plane for an important meeting, and the babysitter is nowhere to be found. The estranged father has shown up at her door at this moment, the last person she wants to see. But, desperate, she asks him to stay with Elsa until the babysitter arrives. The girl doesn’t know that this man is her father (but you can tell from the first scene, she knows). With the babysitter still missing, the dad has three days with his daughter.

Van Elmbt is herself a single mother, and the film stars her daughter Lina, who is completely wondrous and seems unaware of cameras around her. Single motherhood is a common story now in Europe and the United States—many of the children at Lina’s school don’t know their fathers, and van Elmbt says not enough films address this trend.

The Elephant and the Butterfly was shot chronologically—which is how the Dardennes shoot all their movies—and you see a real relationship grow between the two actors, who had never met before. At first, the father has no idea how to behave—what food Elsa eats, what jacket she might need when they go out for groceries, or how to make sure she listens to him. The genuineness of their relationship is the best part of the film.

“I was asking myself, what does it feel to be a father?” said van Elmbt, an interesting question for one of the few female directors with a film getting U.S. distribution. “To be a father, it starts from the words of the mother, of a woman, that says, ‘I’m pregnant.’ That’s the first step, after that, when the child is born, the father has to recognize himself as the father of this child. But the child has to also recognize himself as the child of the father. It’s like a kind of double recognition. So it’s very interesting to me, this process, because it’s not like that”—she snapped her fingers—“it takes time for them both to recognize each other.” Her film tries to capture that process.

Sipa via AP Images

Amélie van Elmbt (Sipa via AP Images)

At Tribeca, American audiences reacted warmly to the film, laughing at some comedic scenes that left Belgian audiences stoic. “I was surprised, it is easier here even than in Belgium,” van Elmbt said. In Belgium her film had been described, almost in derision, as a “feel-good movie,” which she said takes away the depth of the relationship portrayed.

The elite film world often has a cynical atmosphere, she said, but she wants to keep hope in her films. Sometimes there is a sense among critics that a film has to be bleak to be good.

While the films the Dardennes write and direct are not as lighthearted as The Elephant and the Butterfly, they still lack despair. Luc Dardenne (who studied philosophy in college) published in 2012 a long essay, “On the Human Condition.” It is full of philosophical discussions and questions, zipping from Franz Kafka to Friedrich Nietzsche.

One question he asks at the beginning: “How to announce the death of God without hearing the whispering that He is still alive?” One film at a time, the Dardennes are whispering that question.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Wed, 05/16/2018 07:37 am

    Very interesting!

    World, I rarely see you on Facebook anymore, along with many other conservative sites that I've noticed I don't see any more.

  • MamaC
    Posted: Wed, 05/16/2018 12:31 pm

    I still get World on my Facebook newsfeed. I think it helps if you follow the Facebook link every so often, because Facebook then recognizes World as being of interest to you.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Wed, 05/16/2018 12:18 pm

    “How to announce the death of God without hearing the whispering that He is still alive?"

    That is a fascinating question that captures the heart of modern man.  Everyone who can think knows God exists (Rom 1:19).  We share a common makeup, that rejoices at the same themes, yet there is such resistance to an overt admission of the obvious, that God is alive and active in this world.