The new film from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers asks a question that often feels unanswerable, or too big or too sensitive to touch in art or entertainment: what drives a Muslim teenager in modern-day Europe to want to kill their fellow citizens in the name of religion? ‘Young Ahmed’ gives us such a boy, played with illuminating presence by first-timer Idir Ben Addi. Ahmed joins a line-up of troubled youngsters whose lives have been compassionately explored in the Dardenne brothers’ films, from ‘Rosetta’ to ‘The Kid with a Bike’ – all of them set in the same working-class Belgian suburban landscape. As ever, the Dardennes’ approach isn’t sensational or judgmental: instead they explore Ahmed’s decisions and actions carefully in their trademark style, which looks like documentary and feels like a pared-down parable.
Ahmed looks to be on a one-way path to something awful: he calls his sister a ‘slut’ and condemns his white mum’s drinking. There’s no father on the scene, and his conversations with a local imam-cum-shopkeeper (Othmane Moumen) lead him to fixate on a teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), who gives modern Arabic lessons. For Ahmed and his imam, Inès’s secular lessons run against the teachings of the Qu’ran, while the imam inflames Ahmed’s feelings about her by suggesting that her new boyfriend is Jewish. An act of violence follows – but the film is as much concerned with whether Ahmed will come to see the world differently as with how he arrived at this world-view in the first place.
Just tackling this subject makes this new Dardenne film more controversial than usual but also more immediate and troubling. You might ask what two white men in their sixties know about Islamic fundamentalism, but the Dardennes are supreme collaborators and researchers, experienced in examining the strains and stresses of working-class life, and also in stepping back and preserving mystery when there are no easy conclusions. What’s rewarding in ‘Young Ahmed’ is how fitting their approach feels with this topic. In their films, there’s never just good or evil, heroes or villains. Instead, they give us small decisions and little actions, some more consequential than others, and always with reference to the circumstances and perspective of their characters. ‘Young Ahmed’ might not have answers, but it asks pertinent questions and makes acute observations. Its ending is hopeful, yet open. It’s a wise and sensitive contribution to a timely debate.