The Dardenne brothers’ latest film “Young Ahmed”, which won the Best Director award when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, gives us a phlegmatic observation of a young adolescent boy who happens to be driven by virulent religious extremism. Although the movie adamantly sticks to its detached objective viewpoint throughout its short running time (84 minutes), the movie is often fascinating as making us wondering about what makes him tick, and it is a shame that the story later comes to arrive at a rather contrived finale.
In the beginning, the film observes how much the daily life of Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) has been consumed by his fanatical religious belief. Since he became associated with a local imam in his urban neighborhood along with his older brother some time ago, he has often blatantly emphasized a distorted version of Islamic faith imparted by that local imam, and this certainly disturbs and frustrates not only his mother but also his school teacher, who really cares about Ahmed but is often disregarded by him just because she is a Muslim woman dating an infidel.
The movie does not give much explanation on how and why Ahmed was turned into a little zealous fanatic, but a key scene showing his domestic life with his family members implies to us that he was quite angry, unhappy, and insecure after his mother was divorced from his Arab father. To him, the local imam, who is your typical banal Islamic fundamentalist, is probably an alternative father figure to look upon, and their private scene shows us how much Ahmed is devoted to every word uttered by his religious mentor, who openly talks about Jihad and also encourages his young disciple to follow the footsteps of a cousin who died as a member of some terrorist organization.
And we gradually begin to sense a growing trouble as the local imam deliberately fuels Ahmed’s hostility toward his teacher, who has tried to teach Arabian and Qur’an in secular ways of which they do not approve at all. Along with his older brother, Ahmed just tries to sabotage her efforts during the meeting with her students’ Muslim parents, but then he somehow comes to decide that he should do something more drastic for stopping her once for all. While the movie still maintains its low-key tone even at this point, the tension is slowly increased as the camera patiently follows Ahmed, and that eventually culminates to a very disturbing moment which inevitably throws him into the next stage of the story.
For what he committed, Ahmed is subsequently sent to a facility for juvenile delinquents, and he follows whatever is instructed to him without much resistance because he is allowed to have his rights of religion. While he still does not seem to realize the ramifications of his wrongful action, he keeps sticking to his religion as before, and he is not particularly interested in meeting his teacher again for any possible reconciliation.
Ahmed is later sent to a farm where he has to work during daytime, and that is how he comes across a young adolescent girl around his age, who is the daughter of a couple running that farm. At first, he is not that comfortable with handling animals due to his religious belief, but it does not take much time for him to get accustomed to that, and it is quite apparent to us that the girl becomes more interested in him as spending more time with him.
However, it is soon revealed that Ahmed has a hidden motive behind his back. He looks like trying to be a model inmate ready to be released, and he even shows the eagerness for meeting his teacher again, but he has actually been preparing for what must be accomplished in his fanatical viewpoint. Around the time when the time seems to come for him, the tension below the screen is palpable to say the least, and you may find yourself dreading for what may happen next due to this dangerously willful kid.
Even around that narrative point, Ahmed remains to be a sort of cypher to us, but young performer Idir Ben Addi, who had no acting experience before being selected via the audition held by the Dardenne brothers, keeps holding our attention with his restrained natural performance. I must say that his character is not so sympathetic compared to many of memorable heroes and heroines of the Dardenne brothers’ previous films, but he did a good job of drawing our curiosity and concern while never stepping back from his character’s constantly blank attitude, and he is also supported well by several other main cast performers including Claire Bodson, Victoria Bluck, Othmane Moumen, and Myriem Akheddiou, who is particularly striking during a brief key moment between her character and Ahmed later in the film.
Because of all these and other good elements in the film, I was very dissatisfied with its last act which resolves the main conflict of the story too easily in my inconsequential opinion. While watching Ahmed driven to another drastic measure during this part, I became more concerned about him, but I also could not help but reminded of one of the famous lines from “Citizen Kane” (1941): “If it was anybody else, I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”
On the whole, “Young Ahmed” fails to reach the level of the best works of the Dardenne brothers such as “The Son” (2002) and “Two Days, One Night” (2014), but it is not entirely without engaging qualities at least. Although they stumble a bit too much here in this film, it still occasionally demonstrates why they are two of the most humane filmmakers in our time, and I sincerely hope they will bounce back in the next time.