The Scapegoat: The Dardenne Brothers’ The Son

Once upon a time, there was a man and a boy. Together, the two went on a three-day journey to reach an isolated site for a chosen purpose, a place where they would experience a moral (and mortal) test: they were to offer a sacrifice to God. The boy carried the wood for the offering, while the man carried a secret: the boy would be the sacrifice.

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The above describes the basic plot for the biblical tale of the Akedah, also known as “The Binding of Isaac,” found in Genesis 22. In the story, the patriarch Abraham is tested by God when he is commanded to take his son, Isaac, to a mountain and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham faithfully obeys, and right when he’s about to kill his son, God intervenes and provides a ram in Isaac’s place. The story has elicited all sorts of philosophical and theological interpretations—not least of which is Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling—as well as renowned visual depictions from Rembrandt, Titian, and Caravaggio.

The synopsis could also describe the general narrative of Le Fils (The Son), a cinematic parable written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, popularly known as the Dardenne brothers. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, The Son was the Dardenne brothers’ third major film following their “debut” of The Promise at Cannes in 1996 and their first Palme d’Or win, Rosetta, in 1999 (they won a second Palme d’Or in 2005 for The Child).1 Originally titled L’Épreuve (The Test) as a direct allusion to the Abraham and Isaac story, Luc describes The Son in his published journals, On the Back of Our Images, as the final entry in an informal trilogy following The Promise and Rosetta. He says that each of these films explores the philosophical question of “what does it mean to be human today?” within the concrete, extreme situations of modern Western society.2 For Luc, the state of the modern world seems fraught with rampant capitalist consumerism and violence, all apparently absent of God and meaning. What are we all working towards, and why? Who or what can we look to for hope? What is the cost of a human life? This latter question haunts all of the Dardennes’ films, as if each is a cinematic meditation on the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”

When I call The Son a “parable,” I mean something more than simply a film with a moral or religious message. Parable is distinct from an allegory or a fable; it’s a concise, realistic narrative with layers of metaphorical meaning. A parable teases the audience’s imagination into active thought through indirection, disequilibration, and subversion; they mean more than a mere surface interpretation, yet they also aren’t direct or clear about what that deeper meaning is. These stories point to the extraordinary within the ordinary, inviting us to reconsider our own world in light of the provocative fictional world before us. They’re secular or profane narratives which generate potentially numerous valid interpretations. As a parable, The Son is a simple tale about a man and a boy, but it’s also about life and death, meaning and morality, vengeance and forgiveness, humanity and God.

Like all of the Dardenne brothers’ films, The Son begins in medias res, tossing us into the filmic world and forcing us to get our bearings. As we hear the noises of a workshop over the opening titles, the film begins with a striking first shot which slowly moves upward until the back of a man’s head is revealed—we realize we have been staring at a close-up of the man’s back over the entirety of the credits. We will continue to watch this back closely throughout The Son; the man has a sturdy frame, thick glasses, a large leather belt supporting his lower torso, a wine-colored sweatshirt and blue carpentry coveralls flecked with sawdust as his garments. His name is Olivier, and we can discern he is a working-class carpenter, an ordinary man doing ordinary work. 

The opening long-take is shot as though we are peeking through a door frame, spying on Olivier, his face hidden from view as we continue to gaze at his back. This obscured point of view is a signature trait of the Dardennes’ style: they intentionally construct shots which set the viewer “in front of the mystery, the impossibility of knowing, of seeing.” The carpenter’s unseen eyes seem fixated on a piece of paper handed to him by a nearby woman. The camera pivots back and forth between the back of his head and her anticipatory face awaiting an answer. The shrill sound of a woodworking tool interrupts us; it’s followed by a boy’s voice calling “Olivier!” The carpenter, portrayed by Olivier Gourmet, an actor who appears in nearly all of the Dardennes’ films, rushes over to fix the problem as the shaky camera follows in pursuit. It’s a plank jammed in a machine, a metaphoric sign of disruption and hindrance. Then Olivier turns his attention back to the woman, whom we will learn is Catherine, the director of the job placement center where the woodshop is located, and replies that he cannot take on a new boy as an apprentice. His response—“I can’t handle it”—is pregnant with meaning, although we can only guess at this point as to why Olivier appears so agitated and pensive.

Gourmet portrays Olivier with an impassive and opaque visage, communicating mostly via his posture and movements rather than facial expressions or words. The part was written specifically for him by the Dardennes after his roles in The Promise and Rosetta, and he rightfully won the “Best Actor” award at Cannes in 2002 for his understated performance. Even as he turns down the incoming teenager, we can discern in his body language that Olivier’s curiosity seems piqued. In subsequent scenes, Olivier heads to the hallway outside Catherine’s office and keeps peering around corners or through windows while we, the audience, peer alongside him as an invisible witness, all-seeing yet not omniscient. He lurks and stalks, his quick movements interspersed with long lingering pauses, suggesting an underlying obsession and anticipation, as if he were hunting. 

Who or what is the object of Olivier’s desire? The Dardennes only show, never tell. In his journals, Luc describes this purposeful lack of exposition as “the secret,” a tense gap between “almost seeing” and “actually seeing” what the character sees. The obscured camera angles situated in the “wrong place”—a technique Luc says they learned from watching Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog—make us want to peek around the corner, to peep through the cracks in the door, to glance over Olivier’s shoulder and see what he sees. But the camera resists our voyeuristic gaze. It will make us privy to diegetic narrative information only when we absolutely need to see it, and not a moment before or after. When we naturally desire the camera to cut, it refuses to blink, instead holding its steady stare as the events before us unfold. Most edits occur within the lengthy uncut shots via the camera’s movements and blocking rather than traditional cuts or montage. When we hope to see more, the camera swings in another direction or stops short of following any closer, often cutting mid-action. When we feel uncomfortably close to Olivier’s body—his hands, his torso, the nape of his neck—the camera remains intimate while never penetrating Olivier’s interiority. This is a cinema of both resistance and receptivity—it is equally invitational and confrontational. 

In this, the Dardennes almost entirely reject the conventions of traditional fiction filmmaking. There are no POV shots, no shot/reverse-shots, no traditional coverage, no dissolves, no explanatory narration or voiceover, no soundtrack, no lengthy melodramatic speeches, and ultimately no resolution. Though the film has a pronounced realist soundscape, The Son is essentially a silent film, its story mainly unfolding through characters’ actions and inscrutable expressions, captured via the shaky handheld camera. This realist cinematic aesthetic fosters a relentless feeling of suspense and intrigue right from the opening moments, not out of fear so much as concern and empathy. With such close proximity to the characters, The Son compels us to literally lean forward on the edge of our seats, craning to perceive while awaiting the outburst of violence which somehow feels inevitable, fated, or even predestined. In this, there is a somatic response evoked by the Dardennes’ roving camera, an affective tension which may only be relinquished in the film’s cathartic denouement. 

The shaky camera closely following the characters is a signature trait of the Dardennes’ cinematography, what Luc calls a corps-caméra, or “camera-body.”3 Instead of using static shots or camera stabilizing technology like Steadicam, the Dardennes prefer a lively handheld aesthetic, where the camera “follows” the seemingly-live events unfolding before it, as if we were seeing documentary footage and not a fictional film. Indeed, the brothers began their filmmaking career in the 1970s and 1980s, making documentaries in and around their post-industrial hometown of Seraing, Belgium, where all of their fictional films are also set. When you watch a Dardenne brothers movie, it feels like the camera is racing to catch up to, and be right in the middle of, the action, like it had stumbled upon these events which would have occurred whether or not the camera was present and its curiosity compelled it closer. The brothers are sometimes criticized for making movies mainly about the backs of their characters’ heads. The film-world captured by the Dardennes’ camera-body appears natural or improvised; in actuality, every shot is deliberately framed and lit, highly choreographed and well-rehearsed, unfolding like a dance between camera, actors, and environment. This approach to cinematography creates a sense that we as audience are bodily present—perhaps the best term is incarnate—within the film-world. With the camera acting like a human body, we are empathetically drawn close to the characters, the intimacy generating an emotional contagion where we “catch” their feelings. The Dardennes’ cinema is humanistic in every way: it is exploring what it means to be human through the humanized gaze of the camera-body.

We see this humanized gaze in the scene following the opening shots. When Olivier comes home to his sparse apartment after finishing work at the workshop, his ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart) arrives unexpectedly for a visit, disclosing to Olivier that she plans to remarry and that she’s pregnant. The uncomfortable lulls and Olivier’s lack of eye contact emphasize the lost intimacy between these characters which has dissolved into empty formalities and aloof silences. The camera-body never cuts away during the conversation, forgoing expected shot/reverse-shot techniques and instead pivoting the focus back and forth between the two characters in rehearsed rhythms as they, all three—Olivier, Magali, and the incarnate-yet-invisible camera-body—move about the apartment as in a dance. When Magali’s pregnancy news comes off-screen, the camera lingers on Olivier’s face as he silently washes dishes, just long enough for us to wonder if he will say anything at all. Then there’s a sudden jump-cut: Olivier is frantically rushing down a stairwell out into a parking lot. He catches up to Magali’s car before she drives away: “Why did you come today? Why this Wednesday? Why today and not another day?” The suddenness of the jump-cut indicates Olivier’s agitated emotional state, and the almost violent shakiness of the camera-body generates further tension. 

There is something curiously coincidental (or providential?) about the timing of the day’s events: The new boy turns up as an apprentice and his ex-wife tells him she’s pregnant. Olivier yearns to understand why, and so do we. His questions are directed to Magali, but they could also be considered a sort of prayer, a cry into the cosmos searching for the reasoning and meaning behind these events. We, too, are intrigued by Olivier’s rigid silences punctuated by bursts of panicky rushes—at this point in The Son, any assumptions we have about Olivier’s possible feelings or motives are solely determined by our previous film-viewing experiences and genre conventions, as the Dardennes have not revealed the motivations behind Olivier’s apparent anxiety. In his brilliant review praising the film, Roger Ebert4 describes this dynamic well:

[Olivier] corrects a boy using a power saw. We wonder, because we have been beaten down by formula films, if someone is going to lose a finger or a hand. No. The plank is going to be cut correctly…The hand-held camera, which follows Olivier everywhere, usually in close medium shot, follows him as he looks around a corner (we intuit it is a corner; two walls form an apparent join). Is he watching the boy take a shower? Is Olivier gay? No. We have seen too many movies.

The Dardennes are indeed playing on the fact that “we have seen too many movies,” utilizing cinematic archetypes and tropes only to subtly upend them, a reorientation by disorientation.

The Dardennes’ approach to editing, a rhythm between long takes and sudden jump-cuts, keeps us continually on edge. While writing the screenplay for The Promise, Luc was reading novels by Toni Morrison, and he credits her for inspiring the editing rhythm of the brothers’ filmmaking style, “for opening scenes without any clarifying information, for the rough, wild, biting tone.” Most scenes begin right in the middle of the action and cut before the action has resolved, leaving us emotionally unsettled. In The Son, after Magali leaves, there’s another sudden jump-cut to a shot of Olivier clambering off the top of a metal locker as an apprentice enters the woodshop locker room. Jolted, we soon discern it’s the following day, and there is an increased urgency to Olivier’s stalking. The incarnate camera-body fosters this tension with its close-ups and constant movement, and the immersive soundscape of woodshop noises—screeching saws, pounding hammers, scraping sandpaper—adds to the suspense. We feel like we are invisibly spying on others right alongside Olivier, and wonder if he (and we) will be caught.

At lunch, Olivier hides in the job center kitchen, casting furtive glances towards the cafeteria filled with teenage apprentices, trying to catch a glimpse of whomever he’s apparently hunting. As he cleans a kitchen knife—an image suggesting violence—he suddenly turns away from both the camera-body and the cafeteria, obscuring his face; we see the back of his head squarely in the frame as we overhear an off-screen conversation between a boy and the cafeteria worker. The camera-body suddenly swings rapidly over to the window, catching a glimpse of the teenage boy’s back as he walks away with his meal, then pans quickly back towards Olivier—he is now facing the window with a piercing stare. This is our first quasi-clear view of the new boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne), whom Olivier will choose to take on as a new apprentice. Later outside Catherine’s office, he second-guesses himself and tries to leave twice while she’s on the phone, but eventually gives in: “The new kid…I can take him.”  

As we continue to wonder at Olivier’s obsession with Francis—is he a sexual predator?—the Dardennes relentlessly build the tension. Following his agreement to bring on Francis, Olivier goes to talk with Magali at her work (a gas station) to inform her of a new development: the boy who killed their son has been let out of prison and came to the center to learn carpentry. This sudden disclosure is emotionally jarring for both Magali and the audience, but we now can understand Olivier’s fixation on Francis. Perhaps he even took on the position at the job training center in anticipation that this day would come, that he would come face to face with the murderer of his child. “I even wondered at the idea of taking him,” Olivier admits. “Why?” the obviously upset Magali demands. “Teach him carpentry,” Olivier quietly replies. The despondent Magali cries, “You’re crazy! He killed our son, and you teach him!” Quickly, Olivier denies Francis’ ongoing presence, even though Olivier has, in fact, chosen to take on the teenager as his apprentice. 

This revelation of the relationship between Olivier and Francis generates further tension, for while Olivier knows who Francis is, Francis does not know who Olivier is—and we as the audience are now in on the secret. We later learn that Francis had broken into Olivier and Magali’s car to steal a radio, not realizing that their young son (we never learn the exact age, but likely a toddler) was alone in the backseat. Olivier’s son grabbed and held onto Francis, prompting the 10-year-old boy to strangle the younger child in order to escape. This raises all sorts of questions: What compelled the 10-year-old Francis to steal, let alone kill another human being? Where were his parents or guardians? Why was Olivier and Magali’s young son left alone in a car? Who is responsible? What is justice? The Son raises but never answers these questions; we are prompted to make our own interpretations. 

A second revelatory moment occurs when Olivier offers to drive Francis home at the end of their Friday working together in the woodshop, an ostensibly kind gesture. There have been earlier hints of a potential congenial connection, such as eating French fries together or Francis cleaning sawdust off himself with an air hose after observing Olivier do it, which comes across as childlike mimicry. Later, Francis will even request that Olivier be made his legal guardian, an appeal Olivier cannot give an answer to (Francis still does not know the truth). As Francis gets into the car and Olivier begins to leave, something beyond the frame outside the car catches the carpenter’s attention, prompting him to glance anxiously back and forth between the off-screen sight and Francis before leaping out of the vehicle. In a dramatic long take, Olivier rushes towards us, the now-exterior camera-body, until he reaches the unseen-til-now Magali, blocking her from viewing or approaching Francis in the car as she angrily demands to know the boy’s identity. Olivier holds her, partly to restrain her and partly in a comforting embrace, before confessing: “It’s him.” 

At the news that her ex-husband is spending intimate time with her child’s murderer, Magali faints, collapsing in Olivier’s arms. He frantically carries her as Francis calls to ask if he can help, but Olivier shouts at him to get back in the car, hauling his limp ex-wife to her own vehicle and placing her inside before rushing back to his car for a thermos of coffee, then returning to the waking Magali—remember, this is all experienced in one uncut shot. The already-shaky camera-body displays almost panicky movements throughout the scene until Olivier can calm Magali with the coffee; as an empathetic and humanistic observer, it mirrors the emotional state of the people in its gaze. 

“Who do you think you are?” she asks Olivier. “Nobody would do this.”

The camera-body turns to him and holds its gaze: “I know,” he replies, breathing heavily from the weight of the moment.

Magali demands, “So why you?” After an emotionally-charged beat, Olivier’s simple response is the thematic heart of the entire film: “I don’t know.”

Spoken following a pregnant pause after Magali’s question, the tone of Gourmet’s line-reading communicates a sense of being quietly overwhelmed by his own actions, as if something (or someone) outside of himself were compelling him in this direction. He dares not say any more or offer speculation as to why or how; he can only say, “I don’t know.” This confession of ignorance, this recognition of the possibility of the impossible, is indicative of the Dardennes’ whole parabolic aesthetic. In a journal entry, Luc writes, “Where to position the camera? Which is to say: What am I showing? Which is to say: What am I hiding? Hiding is clearly the most essential thing.” This is resonant with an entry in Robert Bresson’s own published diary, Notes on the Cinematograph: “Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.” Both filmmakers are more interested in what is unseen and unspoken, for this is what truly reveals as the audience is provoked to pay closer attention to what is inside and outside of the frame. In this, the Dardennes deliberately deny us narrative details, characters’ motives, and clear resolutions through their cinematography and editing. Such hiddenness stimulates the audience’s own imagination, prompting viewers to visualize more than what is shown on the screen, “seeing” what is beyond the frame. Thus, Olivier does not know why he acts, yet he continues to act. We, too, do not know the exact reasons for Olivier’s unexpected actions. Perhaps Olivier-as-Abraham demonstrates what Kierkegaard called the “virtue of the absurd” in his faithfulness to his vocation—he is simply being true to some mysterious calling.

The final act of the film occurs on a Saturday morning (the third day) when Olivier and Francis visit a remote lumberyard together. The Dardennes have a special affinity for car rides; every one of their films features important scenes occurring within a moving car, the camera typically positioned from the backseat and pivoting between the characters from behind rather than using a traditional shot/reverse-shot or a dashboard-mounted camera. The restricted space of the car is both intimate and claustrophobic, and suggests the final act is a journey or pilgrimage. This sequence also especially echoes Genesis 22—this Abraham and Isaac are headed to the site where the father will slaughter the son. Yet at this point in The Son, what clear validation do we have that Olivier intends to harm or kill Francis? Any such interpretation can only be based on our personal projection of vengeance upon the narrative. The film is deliberatively unclear here; as a parable, Olivier’s ambiguous motives and behaviors generate a polyvalence of legitimate interpretations. He appears neither wholly friendly nor hostile towards Francis; there is evidence for both, even as the film still seems to be building towards a violent climax.

When the two arrive at their destination, Olivier continues to educate Francis in the ways of carpentry, identifying various types of wood based on their grain and texture. As their conversation dwindles and is replaced more by actions—carrying, measuring, and cutting the heavy timber planks—the suspense feels palpable. Subtle moments, such as Olivier tossing a pencil aggressively rather than handing it to Francis, hint at an underlying growing agitation. Once again resisting conventions, the Dardennes film Olivier’s confession to Francis abruptly and off-screen, the camera-body swinging from a medium shot of Francis’ back while he measures a plank to a close-up of Olivier just as the words are leaving his lips: “The boy you killed was my son.”

There is a momentary pause as Francis turns to look at Olivier and consider this surprising news. Then the boy turns and runs, prompting the man to give chase. There follows a frantic, tense scene of cat-and-mouse as Olivier attempts to catch up with Francis, who is fleeing for his life. Erratic jump-cuts and the shaky camera-body exacerbate the suspense. “Don’t be afraid!” Olivier calls. “I won’t hurt you!” Francis’s response is unsurprising: “I don’t believe you!” he screams, scrambling over stacked wood. The sacrificial lamb has realized that he is about to be placed on the altar of retributive justice, and he is understandably resistant. Yet Olivier’s motives for his pursuit remain opaque—his confession is muted, neither compassionate nor threatening, and he may truly not intend any harm. In fact, Francis appears to be more of a threat to Olivier, throwing large planks of wood at the carpenter from his vantage point atop the stacks of lumber, lashing out like a cornered wounded animal.

From the moment Francis flees the interior of the warehouse until the end of the film, no more words are spoken, as if the Dardennes recognize that mere language is inadequate for these ethically—and emotionally—charged final scenes. After a drawn-out pursuit, Olivier finally catches up to Francis outside in the adjacent wooded area, falling on top of the boy and pinning him to the cold wet earth. When Olivier ultimately overcomes Francis and places his hands around the teen’s throat, the camera-body remains focused on the boy’s frightened face, not Olivier’s, until the carpenter’s hands release their grip (does he even apply pressure on Francis’s neck?). Olivier, remaining atop Francis and breathing hard, places his hands on the earth adjacent to Francis’s head while the teen looks upward, the boy’s awestruck face framed in the triangular space between Olivier’s arms and body. Olivier’s face is hidden from view—what does Francis see when he looks into the man’s eyes? Olivier slowly dismounts and sits in silence, breathing heavily and shivering uncontrollably (from the cold? from adrenaline? from emotional release?) as Francis also sits up to recover. There is a lengthy shot of the two sitting beside each other as we hear the pronounced sounds of human breathing and the falling rain. Olivier looks to be in a state of shock when he eventually stands and slowly retreats into the woods alone, leaving Francis to sit with what has just occurred. If the past three days have been an Abrahamic test, both Olivier and Francis appear to have passed with their lives.  

One distinction between The Son and Genesis 22 is the seeming absence of God’s intervention. Where God stops Abraham and provides a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac, Olivier relents due not to an external divine command but, presumably, to his own wherewithal—he makes a moral choice for life instead of death through his personal volition. However, we also cannot definitively say that Olivier does not hear or respond to an internal divine prompting, for the Dardennes’ camera-body honors the interiority and subjectivity of these characters, allowing for such ambiguity. We are brought very close to Olivier, but are never placed inside his head or heart. Perhaps God does not directly appear here as in the grand spectacles of the cinematic biblical epic (e.g. Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments) but indirectly within “the sound of sheer silence” of the Dardennes’ transcendent realism.5 After all, the film’s religious symbolism is hard to ignore; the title bears traces of both the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” and the second person of the Trinity. Yet in interviews about The Son, the Dardennes have resisted religious or redemption interpretations, stating that Olivier does not offer spoken forgiveness to Francis, nor does Francis ever state that he is sorry for killing Olivier’s son. As Luc says, “We never wanted to express any thesis, Christian or otherwise—it’s simply a human story.” Yet even as Olivier does not verbally forgive, he appears to bodily forgive, to expel the demons of bitter vengeance by means of bodily embrace—it is, quite literally, a cathartic release when his hands free Francis, the weight of his body atop the boy corresponding to the spiritual/emotional weight he has carried.

In the final long take, Olivier silently finishes the job of stacking planks in the trailer when he looks up and appears to see something off-screen. The camera-body swings around to see Francis standing nearby, his stiff posture communicating uncertainty. The camera-body turns back to Olivier, who keeps his eye on Francis as he continues to work. Then, without a word, Francis tentatively joins him, his actions slowly shifting from hesitancy to a quiet resolve. The “father” places a wooden plank into the trailer, then the “son” follows suit. Neither speaks, their bodily actions communicating all we need to know. Together, the two wrap the wood in a tarp, Olivier periodically glancing at Francis, his face remaining an unreadable blank. The final image is of Olivier getting a rope from his car (it would be so easy to strangle Francis here) and binding the wood instead of the boy. For the first time in The Son, the two are in focus within the frame together in a medium shot, side by side, suggesting the hope of reconciliation as the film abruptly cuts to black and we are left in silent wonder. 

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In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, philosopher and anthropologist René Girard argues that violence in societies unfolds in “a mimetic spiral,” where an individual violent act prompts a retaliatory response towards the perpetrator, which then generates further violent responses in a tautological escalation (Girard calls this “mimetic contagion”). Someone hurts us, so we hurt them back, which prompts further retaliation, and so on. We see this spiral of violence everywhere: on the child’s playground, in marital disputes, in international military conflicts, on social media. Girard suggests that the cycle is broken when the systemic violence is channeled toward an individual sacrificial victim, what he calls the scapegoat, a form of societal catharsis and purification. A keen philosopher himself, Luc has shown an interest in Girard, writing reflections about reading I See Satan Fall Like Lightning in his journals and expressing a desire to make a “dry film” about Girard’s scapegoat phenomenon.6

I believe The Son could be Luc’s scapegoat film. The parable acts as the antithesis of popular “revenge thriller” movies where the wronged protagonist (often a parent) goes on an obsessed mission to enact bloody retributive justice on those who took everything dear (e.g. The Revenant, Taken, Kill Bill). The Son builds upon this convention; we naturally expect the grieving father to kill his son’s unrepentant murderer, and probably wouldn’t blame him if he did. The setting of a carpenter’s shop, with its innumerable sharp objects and piercing sounds, signifies an underlying sense of impending bloodshed. Recall Ebert’s observation, that The Son assumes “we have seen too many movies.”

The Son takes our pre-understanding of such revenge films and mercifully dismantles it in the coda. No graphic violence is depicted and no scapegoat is needed—the sacrifice and forgiveness are wholly internal to Olivier. Where we anticipated cathartic vengeance, we are given a catharsis of mercy. Where we did not expect to find God (religion is never mentioned in The Son) we find traces of the transcendent precisely through the immanence of a father embracing an adopted son, an affirmation of the infinite and mysterious power of forgiveness. We are thus invited to consider whom we ought to forgive, and who has also forgiven us. Perhaps we are all both Olivier and Francis, broken human beings in need of a second chance at life. Indeed, The Son is prodigally gracious and hopeful. I would dare to say it’s a perfect film. Here’s Ebert again: 

The Son is a great film. If you find you cannot respond to it, that is the degree to which you have room to grow. I am not being arrogant; I grew during this film. It taught me things about the cinema I did not know…You expect, because you have been trained by formula films, an accident or an act of violence. What you could not expect is the breathtaking spiritual beauty of the ending of the film, which is nevertheless no less banal than everything that has gone before. 

Ebert’s confession that he grew during this film, that it taught him new truths after he received its wisdom, suggests that films like The Son are capable of expanding our moral imaginations if we are willing to humbly enter into their worlds. Breathtaking spiritual beauty within the banal—such is the power of cinematic parables.

  1. Though The Promise is often considered their debut film because it’s the first of their distinct “Dardenne brothers” style, the Dardennes have been making films since the 1970s, including two feature-length fiction films, Falsch (1986) and Je Pense à Vous (1992), which have rarely been seen outside of Belgium.
  2. Luc’s journals were published in French as Au Dos De Nos Images I and II, and thankfully have been recently translated into English and published by Featherproof Books.
  3. Inspired by the Dardennes, Darren Aronofsky applied this technique in The Wrestler and Black Swan.
  4. Ebert listed The Son at #8 on his “Top 10 of 2003” and #7 of his “Best Films of the Decade (2000s).”
  5. In the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, God appears to the prophet not through natural spectacles or wonders, but through “the sound of sheer silence.”
  6. Luc has a philosophy degree and has even written a book of philosophy, Sur L’Affair Humaine.