‘Young Ahmed’: Jean-Pierre And Luc Dardenne Deliver A Gripping Look At Religious Fundamentalism [Cannes Review]

The Playlist | 5/20/2019 | Bradley Warren
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The style of filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has shifted over the years, moving further away from the shattering realism that earned them Palme d’Ors for “Rosetta” and “The Child.” Fourteen years after the latter win, and in the running for their third Palme at the Cannes Film Festival, the Dardenne brothers turn their camera toward the world of Islamic fundamentalism with “Young Ahmed,” a compact, gripping return to the directors’ nonprofessional roots.

In the opening scene of “Young Ahmed,” the eponymous protagonist (Idir Ben Addi) sharply retorts, “I’m not a child.” Influenced by the sacrifice of his jihadist cousin, Ahmed devotes himself to fundamentalist Islamic values and obsesses over the notion of purity. He finds himself in conflict with his concerned mother (Claire Bodson) and teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), a nurturing presence in the local Muslim community. Influenced by a misogynistic, potentially violent interpretation of Islam, the teenage boy is unwilling to even shake a woman’s hand.

Encounter - Finds - Ahmed - Mother - Detention

A violent encounter finds Ahmed separated from his concerned mother and sent to a detention center. From here, “Young Ahmed” plays out like a modern take on the final act of “The 400 Blows” with a harder edge. The hope is that the intervention of a psychologist, and an encounter in the countryside, will encourage the boy to question his indoctrination. The Dardennes move quickly past the most dramatically potent events and focus on the aftermath. At a lean 84 minutes, “Young Ahmed” moves along at a steady clip, but does so without sacrificing emotional heft.

In the lead role, Ben Addi is yet another mesmerizing young discovery by the Belgian duo. He bears a fixed expression throughout; his face becomes a mask to his emotions and concealing an inner turmoil. Hints to what precisely drove Ahmed’s transformation are scarce. Don’t expect a gentle transformation...
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