Young Ahmed

 

starstarstarhalf

 


A film which has split critical opinion, perhaps justifiably so.

 
Young Ahmed

  

At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the Best Director award was shared by the Dardenne brothers for this latest work of theirs. If that was a surprise, it was due to the fact that a number of critics had taken the line that Young Ahmed was not up to their usual standard. In the event I have very mixed feelings about it myself without necessarily having the same reservations as others have had.

 

First of all, I must stress that the first hour or so of Young Ahmed makes one feel that it could well be a masterpiece. As often with the Dardennes, the setting is Belgium but they are on fresh ground in offering a study of a 13-year-old Muslim boy who, under the influence of a local imam (Othmane Moumen), has become absolutely committed to Islamic fundamentalism. The boy, Ahmed played by Idir Ben Addi, is so much the centre of this film that the directors opt for frequent close-up shots which again and again put you inside his head. He is possessed of all the obstinacy of a young teenager and, in the absence of his father, his disapproving mother (Claire Bodson) can do nothing to control him. The model he has taken to heart is a deceased cousin who famously became a jihadist and martyred himself. Now, eager to take things further than even the imam could imagine, he is determined to kill his sympathetic teacher (Myriem Akheddiou) who outrages him because she wishes to use the words of pop songs rather than those in the Qur’an in the course of her Arabic classes and because she has a Jewish boyfriend.

 

Some critics berate the film for not showing the social conditions that lead Ahmed to this attitude, but that is not the point of Young Ahmed. The boy's outlook is already fully formed when the film begins and, with its second half devoted to his time in a detention facility and under the supervision of a caseworker (Olivier Bonnaud), the film brings home to the viewer just how well-nigh impossible it is to rehabilitate somebody who is utterly committed to a faith that is misguidedly interpreted and understood by that person in an extremist form.

 

There is suspense and tension as we viewers observe Ahmed looking for any signs of change in him and intuiting just how genuine any fresh sentiments on his part really are. All of this is done in the best style of the Dardenne brothers without music on the soundtrack and with an acute eye for everyday realities that is compelling. The jump to the film's second half is rather sudden and, with no explanatory details offered about the system of care for offenders, I did wonder what to make of the owner of the farm where Ahmed is sent to spend some days at a time. As it happens this lack of information becomes important when, improbably, the farmer's daughter (Victoria Bluck) is attracted to Ahmed and finds him responding so seriously that he asks her to become a Muslim. Would her father, who has presumably been told something of the boy's history, really house a jihadist who has attempted to kill without warning his daughter of Ahmed's background or at least keeping them well apart? If through no fault of the players (all of the cast are totally persuasive) this plot development fails to convince, the film's denouement feels even more questionable whatever interpretation one seeks to impose on it. Consequently, Young Ahmed provides an odd experience since the last third of it lacks conviction while up to that point it finds the Dardenne brothers on their very best form.

 

Original title: Le jeune Ahmed.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Olivier Bonnaud, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Othmane Moumen, Amine Hamidou, Yassine Tarsimi, Cyra Lassman, Karim Chibab, Nadège Ouedraogo.

 

Dir Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Pro Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne and Denis Freyd, Screenplay Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Ph Benoît Dervaux, Pro Des Igor Gabriel, Ed Marie-Hélène Dozo and Tristan Meunier, Costumes Maïra Ramedhan Levi.

 

Les Films du Fleuve/Archipel 35/France 2 Cinéma/Proximus/Canal+/Ciné+-Curzon.
84 mins. Belgium/France. 2019. Rel: 7 August 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. No Cert.