3rd 10 - 2013 | 7 comments »

CIFF 2013: The Verdict (Het Vonnis, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Jan Verheyen

The Verdict 8

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the things I love about the Chicago International Film Festival is having a chance to see what issues are on the minds of filmmakers in different countries. No matter how small the world may seem to be in these days of the worldwide web, we most definitely do not live and see things the same way. The Verdict is a film that shows the yawning cultural chasm between life in the United States and, in this case, that in Belgium. It also provides me with a chance to sound a note of caution about the unintended consequences that may befall the country’s system of jurisprudence if the filmmakers get their way.

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The Verdict opens with a man crouched in a doorway. His face is drawn, and his hands are shaking. The scene ends with a B-roll to a static frame of the man, a technique director Verheyen uses throughout the film to create a patchwork of impressions and amp the intensity of each scene. The next scene shows the man in a very different, very happy frame of mind. He is Luc Segers (Koen De Bouw), an executive who is enjoying a company party with his wife Ella (Joke Devynck) and daughter (Nell Cattrysse). Luc expects to be named CEO to succeed his mentor, and the two men are set to meet about it the next day.

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On the way home from the party, Luc stops to refuel his car. His wife goes to an automat across the street to get something to eat. She encounters a man who is burglarizing the machines. She resists him when he tries to grab her purse, and he beats her to death with his bare fist. Luc, wondering what is taking Ella so long, goes across the street and runs into the assailant, who kicks him into unconsciousness. Luc’s daughter runs to help her father and is struck and killed by a passing car. When Luc awakens from a three-week coma, he learns that he has lost everything—his wife, his daughter, and the promotion.

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With Luc as an eyewitness, the assailant, Kenny De Groot (Hendrik Aerts), is apprehended quickly at the auto repair shop where he works. Unfortunately, the case is thrown out because a magistrate failed to sign a necessary document. De Groot is out free and clear. Furious that the system failed to secure justice for him and his family, Luc stalks and kills De Groot and gives himself up to the police without a fight. Rather than plea bargain his way to a short sentence, Luc seeks to put the system on trial by going for an acquittal with a defense that his was a crime of passion despite the premeditated nature of his actions.

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I love looking at the workings of jurisprudence in other countries because they all have their unique qualities. In Belgium, though I could be wrong, it appeared that Luc would have to pay something toward the prosecution of De Groot, perhaps even to help pay the publicity-seeking, private defense attorney (Veerle Baetens) who will bill the state for her services. When Luc himself is standing trial, De Groot’s defense attorney stands by as a kind of prosecutor who seems involved primarily to see that the victim, Kenny De Groot, is not put on trial for Luc’s crime. Her summation, detailing De Groot’s difficult childhood as an explanation for his life of violent crime, is right out of the root-causes playbook.

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The trial is extremely compelling, as the testimony is intercut with scenes of the days leading up to the murder and culminating in the murder itself, thus slowly revealing the action we thought we might be denied. The scene of Ella on the floor of the automat looking as though she is preparing to die is doubled with a similar shot of De Groot; however, the brutality of the first murder by a habitually violent man is contrasted with the shaky hand and wild shooting of a man who has never killed anything in his life. Nonetheless, he manages to pump four bullets into De Groot and stands over him as the life bleeds out of him, showing that violent anger is available to us all if given the right set of circumstances.

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American audiences are very used to films and television programs of vigilante justice and revenge, so we expect Luc to act as he did. The film, however, doesn’t make this crime seem like an inevitability. Koen De Bouw’s performance is a tour de force that keeps our expectations slightly off balance because he’s a real person, not a stock character, whose emotions are volatile and realistic. Indeed, the entire cast take overly familiar characters—the lady judge, the barracuda defense attorney, the pragmatic chief prosecutor (Jappe Claes), Luc’s understanding family lawyer (Johan Leysen)—and manage to individualize them to a considerable degree. The closing argument Leysen gives is spellbinding, and almost completely won me over from the equally compelling arguments made by the two prosecutors of the case. The writing and fervency of the actors couldn’t have been better. The tight construction of the film turns a routine procedural into an edge-of-seat experience.

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Nonetheless, the closing title cards that warn of the problem the Belgian criminal justice system faces from procedural errors left me feeling queasy. Equal justice under the law underpinned the prosecution’s case, and Luc’s trial represents a slippery slope away from it. As an American who has just seen the U.S. Supreme Court deal a severe blow to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the Miranda warning requirement, learned that 55 people have been in custody in my state for more than five years awaiting trial, and despairs that the prison population nationwide has quadrupled since 1980 to a total of 2.4 million, I shudder to think what Belgium is toying with. Hopefully, this activist film will see people who commit procedural errors dealt with through education and disciplinary action and not an erosion of the rights Americans once had but lost.

The Verdict shows Wednesday October 16, 8:30 p.m., Thursday, October 17, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 22, 3:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actor Jappe Claes is scheduled to attend the Wednesday and Thursday screenings.www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)

27th 09 - 2011 | 10 comments »

CIFF 2011: The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, 2011)

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Much has been made of depicting the Dardenne brothers as working-class heroes, surveying as they have economically marginal men, women, and children in their intimate, documentary-like feature films. For me, however, the Dardennes are anthropologists of the family. While extended families in the form of grandparents get their due—in The Kid with a Bike, a dead grandmother will spawn the crisis that catalyzes the plot—it is the nuclear family that seems to interest them the most.

The prevalence of foster families, both official and unofficial, in their films might suggest the economic component of their characters’ milieu, but the real investigation, it seems to me, is what kinds of people are or are not able to give of themselves to others. For example, the father in The Son was truly a father or he would not have been able to keep his heart open to a boy he wanted, at one point, to kill. The father in L’Enfant, on the other hand, was more interested in money than his own child, and was willing to make a devil’s bargain to avoid his parental role.

Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier), the single parent in The Kid with a Bike, is a man who has put his son Cyril (Thomas Doret) in a children’s home after Cyril’s grandmother has died. The opening scene shows a defiant Cyril trying to phone his father, only to get an automated message that the number has been disconnected. His counselor (Carl Jadot), whom Cyril accuses of dialing the wrong number, says his father has moved. Cyril refuses to believe it (“He would have brought my bike to me!”) and desperately makes a break from the counselor and the other supervisors to go see Guy. He arrives at his father’s last address, an apartment in a council-housing estate, but can’t get in. The counselor catches up with him, and Cyril runs into the estate’s medical office and clings to a woman to avoid capture. He calms down only after the building superintendant agrees to let him into the apartment. It’s empty, and defeated, Cyril returns to the home.

A few days later, the woman Cyril grabbed, Samantha (Cécile De France), shows up at the home with his bike, which she bought from the man who bought it from Guy. After identifying the bike as his, Cyril says it must have been stolen. As Samantha drives off, Cyril races on his bike to catch up with her. He asks her if he can stay with her on the weekends; she agrees.

On his first weekend staying with Samantha at her hair salon/home, Cyril rides his bike all over town to his father’s various haunts, asking if anyone knows where Guy has moved. His last stop is at a mechanic’s shop where his father used to bring his motorcycle. The mechanic (Mourad Maimuni) says he tried to sell the motorcycle and a boy’s bike, and put a for-sale sign in the shop window. “Maybe the address is on the ad,” the mechanic says. Now confronted with the fact that his father did indeed sell his bike, Cyril’s mood is clouded and uncertain. His search for his father will eventually succeed, but he will be in for a rude awakening—his father, trying to wipe the slate of his life clean and start again, tells Cyril to go away and not come back.

A commenter on this site once said, “The Dardennes are a pair that confound me because I can’t quite figure out how they do what they do. They communicate to the viewer such rich emotion and information with such little design or spectacle.” I’ve given that comment a lot of thought, particularly with regard to this film, and I think I have a start at an answer. In truth, there is a real design to their films, and it is in the landscape of the human face they focus so closely and intently upon. Abetting this image of eternal fascination to human beings are the deeply committed performances the directors get from their cast. Young Thomas Doret throws himself into this role, and I mean that quite literally. He hurdles through doorways and down stairs, pedals with a furious purpose on his bike, relentlessly chases and wrestles with a boy who steals his bike, and punches and scratches his own face in anger and grief after being rejected by his father. He’s incredibly vulnerable—an easy recruit for Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a drug dealer and former children’s home dweller himself—and yet his intensity and anger are rather scary.

Whereas Guy is the Dardennes’ usual bad father, Samantha is, as her name suggests, a kind of samaritan. Cyril asks her why she agreed to take him in, and she can only answer “I don’t know.” It isn’t easy to understand why this woman would take a half-grown problem child on, and he certainly isn’t easy for her to handle. But she does, and even dumps her boyfriend Gilles (Laurent Caron) when he makes her choose between him and Cyril. Is she a born nurturer? Does she see someone she knew in Cyril? Is she someone who steps up to the plate because she can? Sometimes doing the right thing is just that simple, but, of course, she will have no guarantees that Cyril will turn out fine. He has obviously had a history that will make the future rocky at times, but Samantha seems willing to love him anyway.

A small touch has entered the Dardennes’ work, and that is music—short grace notes at crucial moments in the film that quite reminded me of the use of brief interludes from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. It would not be a stretch to imagine that Bresson was an influence on the Dardennes. In contrast with Bresson’s increased pessimism, however, the Dardennes seem to be feeling more hopeful about the future. The Kid with a Bike is very nearly a feel-good movie.

The Kid with a Bike will screen Saturday, October 8, 5:15 p.m., and Sunday, October 9, 5:00 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

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