The Son of Joseph

 

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A film that could only have been made by an authentic artist and only by Eugène Green.

 
Son of Joseph, The

 

No more markedly individual film than this has appeared in 2016, and that's a fact which will give pleasure to some and leave others totally dismayed. The Son of Joseph is the work of the American-born French writer/director Eugène Green who has long been based in Europe. Until now his most recent work to be seen here was the 2009 feature The Portuguese Nun which invited comparison with the films of Robert Bresson and so does this one. The Son of Joseph begins and ends with striking music on the soundtrack, religious pieces by rather unfamiliar composers, and the story that Green chooses to tell might well be called a fable were it not for the fact that parable is a more appropriate word.

 

Adopting a style that eschews naturalism, Green initially casts a sardonic eye on today's world introducing us briefly to two boys who are torturing a caged rat and to another youth who is preparing to set up a business by selling sperm over the internet. However, a very different teenager is soon established as the central character: this is Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) who is being brought up by his mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), but without knowledge of the identity of his father which Marie has hidden from him. This man is in fact a publisher, Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric) and, when Vincent finds a revealing letter about his parentage, he immediately sets out to gatecrash his father's world. This leads to Green portraying the present-day literary milieu as one ripe for satire and it is Oscar's poverty stricken brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), with his dreams of becoming a farmer who, encountering Vincent, will become his true father figure.

 

This film may embrace various kinds of humour (certain scenes are not that far removed from farce) but at heart it is a deeply religious work centred on the father/son relationship as is suggested early on when we see a copy of Caravaggio's painting of Abraham and Isaac whose history will at times be echoed here as the story develops. The Son of Joseph may not embrace Catholicism as such but it does suggest that our one hope today as always is to follow the voice of God which can be heard because God is within all of us. This is a work in which religious echoes abound (there are significant scenes late on featuring a donkey) and in reaching a positive ending it shows Joseph, Maria and Vincent becoming in their life-enhancing unity a holy family. The Son of Joseph is an oddity which takes its time to reveal fully what its aims are and some audiences will doubtless find it difficult to come to terms with it. But that can often be the case when one is faced by the work of a true artist and, while I took time myself to warm to this film, I certainly recognise Green as a highly original talent.

 

Two footnotes that have a certain curiosity value: the producers of The Son of Joseph include the Dardenne brothers and the film incorporates a cameo appearance by Green himself as a hotel concierge which immediately prompts thoughts of Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989).

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Régnier, Fabrizio Rongione, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Julia de Gasquet, Anne-Guersande Ledoux, Félix Debraux, Adrien Michaux, Jacques Bonnaffé, Eugène Green.

 

Dir Eugène Green, Pro Francine Jacob, Didier Jacob, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Screenplay Eugène Green, Ph Raphaël O'Byrne, Art Dir Paul Rouschop, Ed Valérie Loiseleux, Costumes Agnès Noden.

 

Coffee and Films/Les Films du Fleuve/Film Factor/TSF/En haut des marches- MUBI.
113 mins. France/Belgium. 2016. Rel: 16 December 2016. Cert. 12A.