In cinema’s purported Age of Democracy, the herky-jerky aesthetic of the faux-verité drama forgives and even embraces technical roughcasting; most of these art-house staples achieve imitations not of life but of an instantly recognizable (and inexpensive) style. A rarefied exception is the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre. These former documentarians shape half-concealed parables out of the messy incongruities and lurching rhythms of real time, but their films can also be distilled into near abstract studies in motion: a young woman’s famished job-hunt stampede in Rosetta (1999), a carpenter’s stolid march toward a reckoning of his child’s death in this year’s Cannes prizewinner The Son. Represented in the Walter Reade’s Belgian program by The Promise (from 1996), a wrenching moral conundrum set within an immigrant-smuggling ring, the Dardennes exemplify a sociologically engaged realist strain in their nation’s recent cinema. The series also offers up a handful of actual documentaries, including Chantal Akerman’s latest, From the Other Side, an essay on Mexicans attempting to traverse the Arizona border.
In the opener, Dominique Standaert’s Hop, an illegal émigré boy from Burundi finds refuge with a craggy boho couple after his father’s arrest. One of Belgium’s first digital-video features, Hop is uniformly well acted—the young lead, Kolomba Mbuyi, infuses pre-adolescent swagger with childlike vulnerability—but the characters themselves amount to mere binary oppositions: immigrants and anarchists good, everybody else bad.
A hint of gendered finger-wagging can be detected in Meisje and Villa des Roses, which find provincial heroines setting out for the dreamy big city. The Brussels-set Meisje benefits from a quietly plaintive performance by Charlotte Vanden Eynde (a dead ringer for Julia Stiles) as Muriel, a working-class girl with art-historical aspirations. But aiming for feminist frankness, director Dorothée van den Berghe hits non sequiturs instead—for example, a candid-camera account of Muriel having a pee. (You are there!) Frank van Passel’s Villa des Roses also enters a drab chapter into the Smart Women, Foolish Choices handbook, as widowed French maid Julie Delpy moons after a feckless German artist in Paris on the eve of World War I.
Among the films that most overtly mimic the verité patois, Vincent Lannoo’s Strass compiles a mockument of a Brussels acting school tyrannized by a sadistic Method chieftain; smug and bewilderingly unfunny, the film comes with the Dogme stamp of approval. Les Enfants de l’Amour, on the other hand, is an intriguing if badly flawed matrix of blurred lines. Director Geoffrey Enthoven originally set out to make a doc about children of divorce, but when the subjects withdrew their participation, his research became the springboard for a fictional weekend-in-the-life: one mother, two fathers, three kids. Swirling, histrionic cameras and the string cheese on the soundtrack do not negate the film’s frequent white flashes of insight into the longing, resentment, and anger eating away at each limb of this gnarled tree—a family at once hopelessly estranged and irrevocably tangled together.