I wish I could say I have a lot of interesting and insightful things to say about this film, treasures and perspectives that have not yet been mined by writers superior to me. I’m not sure that I do, but I simply love this film, and felt the need to jot a few lines about it here. (BTW, if you haven’t seen this yet, stop now, go see it, then read this and give me a call. This film is too good to have that first experience tainted by my ramblings.)
The brothers Dardenne have crafted what seems to me an extraordinarily tight film. There are no throw away lines. There are no throw away moments. With this film like few others, I feel like every image and word spoken need to be there. It’s been remarked by more than a few folks that the camera follows behind Olivier too much. What is so damn interesting about the back of his head that we need to keep seeing it?
In my mind, it serves at least two functions. First, it creates suspense. As we follow behind, weaving around corners and through hallways, we are forced to wonder what he’s coming up on next. Often, he obscures our vision of what he sees. At other times, our vision is obscured by a door, a window frame, a wall. This obscuring both creates tension, for we feel he is doing something important and it forces us to begin to imagine just what it is he might be doing. Thus we become more engaged, and the tension of the moment rises a bit.
Second, by placing the camera so often behind Olivier, we are forced to relate to him – we experience this film through his eyes. We are therefore able to enter into his decision-making process, at times. And so for the bulk of the first half of the film, we are looking mostly at him. Later, when he is joined by his apprentice, we see the boy through Olivier’s eyes, both for better and for worse.
And of course, this experience of things through Olivier brings us into the center of this film, that which makes it such a universal work of art. In those final scenes, as Olivier so clearly struggles in his relationship with this boy, we ride the roller coaster of his emotions. We see the growing frustration with the boy, as he slams the brakes, and later snaps at the idea of being a guardian to the boy. We see him moved to intense anger in the car as he questions the boy about his past. We see that anger continue to seethe as he slides the ruler to the boy as they cut the planks. And of course, we see all that come to a head in the conclusion, only to see the anger subside, and the boy resuming his place alongside his teacher.
Many will say that this is a film about forgiveness. One cannot argue with that assessment. That process works itself out in Olivier. And the only way it happens is for one to have some meaningful contact with the offending party. But the true greatness of this film is that it goes beyond forgiveness, to another level entirely. Forgiveness merely paves the way that Olivier might adopt him as a son. He will make him his own, and care for him as his own and give him all that is his – not as a replacement of his biological child, but because of the death of that child.