I was asked to contribute a chapter in a new book from Cambridge Scholars Publishing in the UK, Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, edited by Kenneth R. Morefield. Faith and spirituality are large and ambiguous topics, of course, but they’re frequently reduced to marketing terms for niche publishing groups, something I have no interest in perpetuating. Fortunately the chapters I’ve read in the book (including standout essays by Darren Hughes and John Caruana) feature philosophically and aesthetically informed analysis with a universal readership in mind.
Given how often the word “spiritual” is used to describe the work of the Belgian brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, I chose to explore their philosophy and aesthetics primarily through the copious names and references that appear throughout their 2005 diary, Au dos de nos images (On the Back of Our Images) and their many articulate interviews (including one I did myself). Luc was a philosophy student and Jean-Pierre studied acting before they met the French political activist, foreign correspondent, playwright, and theater and film director Armand Gatti (a member of the famed Left Bank group) and started making documentaries and eventually feature films.
“[We had] a strong Catholic upbringing,” Jean-Pierre told Dennis Lim, “until we were in our teens and rejected what our father had imposed on us. But despite the coercive, puritanical elements of religion, our education taught us to acknowledge other people as human beings.” The brothers’ primary influence appears to be the Lithuanian French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who maintained that the face-to-face encounter with the other (irreducibly mysterious but in close proximity) demands a necessary response.
The spirituality of the Dardennes is very much rooted in this inner process by which people (primarily youths) develop a conscience and a sense of responsibility through the face of an other, whether that be Igor via Assita in La Promesse (1996), Rosetta via Riquet in Rosetta (1999), Francis via Olivier in The Son (2002, though their relationship is more complex), or Bruno via Sonia and Steve in The Child (2005). I don’t mean to suggest a reductionistic template for the fascinating, suspenseful, and moving relationships these characters express, only that the Dardennes have a consistently profound interest in exploring the face-to-face, inner development of characters in a socially depleted, post-industrial setting, the brothers’ hometown of Seraing. (Due to Sony Classics’ lethargic distribution, I haven’t yet seen the Dardennes’ 2008 film, Lorna’s Silence.)
Given their thematic concerns, it’s no surprise that the Dardennes’ “model film” is Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, which I use in the essay to bridge the theme of adolescent moral/spiritual development in the absence of social/family structure with a two-pronged aesthetic that combines Rossellini’s proximity (tracking, doting camera) with the alterity (mystery and ellipsis) of Robert Bresson, another filmmaker to whom the brothers have paid tribute. This creates a kind of Levinasian visual grammar that, in turn, encourages the viewer’s own encounter with a cinematic other.
Of course, this is all laid out in much more detail in my essay, “The Brothers Dardenne: Responding to the Face of the Other.” Check it out if you’re interested.