Looking for redemption

Young Ahmed arrives in Cannes and casts a spell of radical realism

Ben Addi as the eponymous character in Young Ahmed. (Photo courtesy of CANNES FILM FESTIVAL)

Young Ahmed believes he's a true Muslim, one of the few in his Muslim neighbourhood in Belgium. He refuses to shake hands with women, quotes verses from the Koran, berates his mother when she drinks, and condemns Jews and pretty much everyone else as infidels. Fellow Belgian-Muslims who do not subscribe to his imam's rigid interpretation of Islam are branded heretics unworthy of uttering the prophet's name. Young Ahmed, 13, is packed tight on the assembly line of Islamic radicalisation, fired up by a sense of self-righteousness so extreme and narrow that we wonder if it leaves room for something else in him, like love, forgiveness or humanity.

Le Jeune Ahmed (Young Ahmed) is a new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time winners of the Palme d'Or who have returned to the Cannes Film Festival this week. For three decades, the Dardenne brothers have only made films that carry a sense of social immediacy (Rosetta; The Son; The Child; The Kid With A Bike; Two Days, One Night), often featuring troubled youths in the working-class milieu of Belgium, and always in an unembellished, documentary-like style wherein the camera sticks closely to the main protagonist. Devastating as they can sometimes be, the Dardennes' films are also modern fables of humanity lost and found, redemption sought and sometimes attained.

Young Ahmed sticks to the Dardenne master plan. We follow Ahmed as he clutches his Koran and meets with a hardline imam who preaches about jihad. At home, his mother warns him against the cleric's influence, and at school, where his teacher is an unveiled Muslim woman, Ahmed rebels against her progressive attitude and attacks her with a knife. In the rest of the film, wherein Ahmed is sent to a reform institution, we watch, hope and even pray that this lovely young boy with a cherubic face will be turned around, that he will find a glimmer of empathy inside his young heart.

In Dardenne films, there's no sentimentality, no feel-good reward, no snap judgement. Everything is presented objectively, often devoid of context. This is cinema as a present tense, and while it brings us close to Ahmed, to see what he sees, it also deprives us of a chance to understand him (why did he fall for the extremist imam's spell?). But again, that's the Dardenne way: you enter someone's life at midpoint, not at the beginning, and you only perceive the world through his point of view as it develops or devolves. In this case you're torn, at a visceral level, between the itch to detest this naive, arrogant boy and the wish that he reforms.

The casting is critical, and Ben Addi as Ahmed has that angelic quality that seems jarring with his extremist tendency. Ahmed is another troubled youth in the rich catalogue of the Dardennes' memorable characters, and he comes across as being as real as anyone who has come to Cannes before him.

The Cannes Film Festival runs until Saturday.