Over the last twenty years, the Dardenne brothers' ("The Unknown Girl") social realist dramas about the forgotten and the marginalized have been honored at the Cannes Film Festival with two Palme d'Ors, two Best Performance awards, one Best Screenplay award, and one Grand Prix. Their magic is still in evidence in their latest film, Young Ahmed, which won them the award for Best Director this year at Cannes. While it is a small film on a very big subject - that of Islamic fundamentalism - the film manages to deliver a thought-provoking and involving experience in spite of its 84-minute length and the broad scope of its subject.
Set in a small town in Belgium, a country that has endured recent terrorist attacks, the film belongs to first-time actor Idir Ben Addi who delivers a remarkable performance as Ahmed, a studious-looking, bespectacled 13-year-old boy whose hangdog appearance and inarticulateness masks his devotion to a fundamentalist religious philosophy that takes no prisoners. With his youth and malleability, his growing adherence to what he considers to be a true Muslim is fostered by his relationship with a local imam, Youssouf (Othmane Moumen, "Bad Buzz") who rails at what he considers to be the growing secular attack on Islam.
Without a father in the home to guide him, Ahmed personifies those whose obsession with ideology blinds them to their own humanity and that of others, taking on the imam's "us versus them" attitude even when it comes to his family. He calls his sister a "slut" because of the casual way she dresses and berates his mother (Claire Bodson, "Our Children") for drinking wine and not wearing a hijab. Apparently, Ahmed's transformation is recent since his mother laments the fact that just last year all he thought about were video games, but we do not know what triggered Ahmed's transformation and the film does not pursue it.
We do know, however, that he is burdened by the memory of his cousin who apparently took his own life as a suicide bomber, a fact that the imam will not let him forget. The teenager's main source of conflict is with his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou, "The Kid with a Bike"). He refuses to shake her hand because he thinks women are impure and because she is dating a person of the Jewish faith. He is also upset about her plans to use music to teach Arabic and the Quran, plans that he considers sacrilegious. Labeled by the imam as an apostate, the impressionable teenager tries to prove his faith by physically assaulting her, an action for which he is placed in juvenile custody. Even this is too much for the imam who tells Ahmed that he said to oppose her beliefs, not try to kill her.
At the juvenile facility, Ahmed is treated with respect by his caseworker, psychologist, and teachers, but the viewer is left probing for clues as to whether Ahmed regrets his actions and is willing to change or whether he is quietly planning another assault. As part of his rehabilitation, he is sent to a farm where he is befriended by Louise (Victoria Bluck), the young daughter at the farm, but even her kiss does not awaken in him a feeling for people who have a different outlook on life. While Young Ahmed centers on the fundamentalist tenets of one religion, the film is not an attack on Islam but an assertion that any idea which considers itself to be the only true belief is antithetical to long-established ideals of tolerance and religious freedom.
Ultimately, no words or actions of others seem to reach Ahmed. As director Jean-Pierre Dardenne put it, "Fanatics don't listen to the outside world; they build a wall between themselves and the world. Their only goal is for others to become like them, no matter the cost." Though the direction in which Ahmed is headed is unclear, it is in the moment when his body deserts him that we get a hint he knows that his only escape from the bondage of ideology is to discover the true nature of his own being and that his only loss will be that which has stood in the way of his deeper understanding of the world.