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The never ending search for the morals by the Dardenne brothers

To win two or three Oscars awards is not bad but when you are a film director, there is something better which is to win a Palme d′Or award. Then you are within the elite as only one director per year can win a Palme d′Or! The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have already won two of these impossible awards and the initial objective of their films was to tell the life of Jesus in an unconventional way. The Belgian government has already modified some of its laws in response to social criticism of their films. They, in their regular humble mode, claim to have nothing to do with those decisions.

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Wednesday, December 22nd 2021 ·.·★ Reading takes 17 minutes or 3370 words.


Belgium is a country with a Catholic tradition and according to statistics 37% of the population still believe in the existence of God. Atheism is followed today by just 9% of the Belgian population. They are a minority, yes, but so are those who regularly attend churches. The number of churchgoers had dropped to 5% as early as 2009. Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were part of that minority when they engaged in strict Catholic traditions with their parents in the 1960s.

In 1960 an economic crisis hit the entire Liíge region. Liíge had been for centuries the most prosperous of the industrial areas of the Walloon Region and the machinery in its mines or factories had become outdated. The Dardenne brothers were then witnessing in the front row the devastating spectacle of the failure of capitalism in the form of closures, layoffs and mass unemployment.

Guillaume Marie van Zuylen was then the bishop of the diocese of Liíge. The bishop had been born into a noble family but his activism had led him to be taken prisoner during World War II - just like director Robert Bresson and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Bishop Guillaume was also a doctor of philosophy and during the economic crisis of his diocese he clearly positioned himself in favor of the working class, even supporting the workers′ demonstrations.

The formation of the Dardenne brothers

Reading the Bible and strict adherence to Catholicism formed part of the most primary education of the Dardenne brothers. Jean-Pierre studied drama and his younger brother Luc studied philosophy before they began working together on documentary shooting under the name Derives in 1975. The focus of documentaries on which they worked for the first twenty years of their profession was clearly aligned. with the philosophical line of Emmanuel Levinas. Luc Dardenne learned it directly from him when he was teaching at the University of Louvain.

The Lithuanian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas had successfully developed ′the idea of the other′ original of the German philosopher Hegel. The idea of prioritizing others over the selfish self-obsession so characteristic of capitalism is not unique to the Dardenne brothers. Directors like Michael Moore, Shane Meadows or Ken Loach have tried to protect the working and middle class with their artistic work, but that is not exactly the approach of the Dardenne brothers.

Many of the protagonists of British Ken Loach′s films in particular are victims of social injustice, yes; but they are adults so exaggeratedly innocent, that in the end they are not very credible. The Dardenne brothers believe that this denaturing of the characters harms the working class and therefore it is not strange to see their protagonists pursuing good and evil in equal parts without really having control over either of them. The approach had already been developed in literature by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky and also in film, of course, by the French Catholic director Robert Bresson.

The deconstruction of the life of Jesus

The Dardenne brothers quit directing documentaries following the success of their film entitled ′La Promesse (1996), with the determined aim of constructing an unconventional account of the life of Jesus. The approach is therefore very different from the literalist approach taken by the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in ′Il Vangelo secondo Matteo′ (1964). The style of the Belgians is closer to that of their neighbor Bruno Dumont a year later in ′La vie de Jésus′ (1997). Dumont also includes scenes where the protagonist who is the figure of Christ drives a noisy moped. The historical person of Jesus does not, of course, appear in any scene in the Dardenne brothers′ films, but he does appear in traces of his life in practically all the stories where parents and children are overwhelmed with feelings related to guilt, forgiveness, revenge or revenge. redemption.

The Dardenne characters show Christological traits in a similar vein to that of many biblical antiheroes such as Jacob, Samson or Jonah. Characters from the stories that they have known since childhood and that they have wanted to use to represent a world in disgrace. The holy family is represented in full including a donkey in the poster of the film that they produced with the title ′Le Fils de Joseph′ (2016). The carpenter father who loses his son in ′Le fils′ (2002), the last supper and falls carrying the butane cylinder with which the protagonist in ′Rosetta′ (1998) or the son who calls the door of his father without success in ′Le gamin au vélo′ (2011) are just some examples.

I got to know these films in the 90s thanks to the recommendations of the theologian José de Segovia, who has also written several reviews in this same magazine. The death or silence of God is undoubtedly the most recurrent religious theme in films, interviews or essays by Belgian directors. Unlike the films of Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman or Lars Von Trier, every trace of reference to the more institutionalized Christianity has been deliberately ignored in the universe of the Dardenne brothers. The only openly religious characters are immigrants and come from Africa, such as La Assita in ′La Promesse′ (1996) or Ahmed in the recent ′Le Jeune Ahmed′ (2019) where he deals directly with the issue of Islamic fundamentalism.

The same hectic scenario for the just and the unjust

The Dardenne brothers′ discourse can easily be confused with that of atheism, but according to Luc, that he believes in the death of God ′does not mean that he cannot speak of God, or that he cannot feel a kind of relationship with a Being that it does not exist ′, he assures in an interview published in′ Accursed Films: Postsecular Cinema between the Tree of Life and Melancholia ′(2018). ′How to announce the death of God without listening to the whisper that He is alive?′, He also asked himself when he began his essay ′On the Human Condition′ (2012) where references to writers such as Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka or Friedrich abound. Nietzsche.

The films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are, despite all their metaphysical content, authentic action films. His films hardly contain long dialogues and in them chases, fights or murders follow one another with ease. The camera is unable to stay steady as it often chases agitated actors from room to room, from street to street, while breathing, slamming doors or sobbing take the place of the original soundtrack.

A curious viewer of his films will undoubtedly remain on the edge of the seat from beginning to end, but certainly the viewer has to be brave. It must be because superficially, the format of his works is very far from the format to which Hollywood cinema is accustomed to today′s audience. If you are looking for a new installment of ′Die Hard′ you will probably have a hard time understanding a movie like ′L′Enfant′ (2005), ′Le Silence de Lorna′ (2008) or ′La Fille Inconnue′ (2016).

Robert Bresson, Bruno Dumont and faith in post-secularism

Film director Bruno Dumont had already dealt with the issue of European Islamic fundamentalism in ′Hadewijch (2009). Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne actually have a lot in common with Bruno Dumont. The three are French-speaking in their sixties, barely two hours away by car. They began their careers documenting industrial activities and began their particular deconstruction campaigns for the life of Jesus barely a year apart. None of them enjoy filming away from home, they study philosophy, and all three directors have serious difficulty believing in a personal God - all the while spinning their entire work around the more spiritual images of the Bible.

Bruno Dumont and the Dardenne brothers refer to the style and emphasis of the Catholic Robert Bresson and, at the same time, all three differ from him by not sharing their faith in a personal God. ′I have this feeling that God is everywhere,′ said Robert Bresson. ′And the more time passes, the more I see it in nature, in the country. When I see a tree, I see that God exists. I try to catch and convey the idea that we have a soul and that the soul is in contact with God. That′s the first thing I want to get in my movies. ′ God makes the rain rain and the sun rise on the just and the unjust, Jesus said. The fallen world appears fallen for believers and unbelievers and yet, in the end, for Robert Bresson ′everything is grace′.

Robert Bresson was interested in filming the biblical ′Book of Genesis′, which is the most explicit document on God′s relationship with creation. God is behind the little things in life such as hands, faces or trees because it was he who created them by imprinting his character and image on them. The ′Book of Genesis′ is also the clearest proof that the decline in our personal relationships is strictly related to our broken relationship with God.

There is no reliable source known to certify that Robert Bresson considered himself a ′Christian atheist,′ but had he said that phrase it would not be particularly inconsistent with what we know of any Christian. Belief or unbelief continually alternate in the life of the Christian, just as they alternate in the life of the atheist. The Bible in particular does not claim that belief makes a particularly great difference in the salvation process. According to the Bible we are saved by grace, which according to Robert Bresson is sovereign, supernatural and comes from God.

La infracción de la ley en la vida de Jesús

Desde el polo opuesto el filósofo Emmanuel Levinas enseñaba en la facultad de Luc Dardenne que sólo podemos conocer a Dios por medio de la ética y los hermanos Dardenne parecen no haber encontrado todavía descanso en esa misma búsqueda. ′Quizás es porque encontremos ahí cerca de lo material y de los cuerpos, una presencia de la realidad humana, un fuego que caliente, que nos haga arder y nos aleje de la tristeza que reina en el vacío, el gran vacío de la vida. Que sea nuestra manera de no desesperar, de volver a tener fe′, escribía Luc Dardenne en 2015.

La necesidad de infringir la ley es clave en las películas de los hermanos Dardenne y la ley generalmente está del lado de padres disfuncionales como ocurre en ′La promesse (1996), ′Rosetta (1999) o ′Le gamin au vélo (2011). ′Tenemos que llegar a un acuerdo en los valores morales, como la igualdad entre hombres y mujeres, algo de lo que estamos muy lejos hoy′ dice Luc Dardenne. Según él ′los valores morales comunes sólo son posibles en un entorno secular y las mujeres sólo podrán tener igualdad en las sociedades donde se rechace la religión como una ley′.

Que la ley no es un sustituto de Dios es sin embargo una idea explícita ya en el primer libro de la Biblia. Dios en el ′Libro de Génesis le pide a Abraham que rompa la ley sacrificando a su único hijo, este relato es además una de las primeras imágenes cristológicas de la historia. El filósofo danés Síren Kierkegaard trata este tema con detalle en su libro ′Temor y Temblor (1843) y los hermanos Dardenne la recuperan especialmente en la película ′Le fils (2002). Jesús ocupa el lugar del que infringe la ley para satisfacer a su padre, que paradójicamente es el que creó la ley. La idea sigue siendo hoy un galimatías para la mayor parte de los que se acercan superficialmente a ella.

Según la explicación del apóstol Pablo la ley de Moisés fue dada no como un fin en sí mismo sino como una guía para llevarnos a la necesidad de la gracia, una gracia que ya estaba planeado en el Génesis que iba a consumar Jesús. La posibilidad de crear leyes morales, éticas o sociales alternativas a la ley de Dios ha existido siempre; no es honesto considerar esa posibilidad como una posibilidad que no se haya perseguido en el pasado. Toda la historia de los hombres en realidad nos habla de su incapacidad de tener éxito creando leyes religiosas o seculares alternativas a la ley de Dios. El Código Magliabechi del Siglo XVI, las Leyes de Manu del 200 a.C o el Código de Hammurabi 1750 a.C.-que se conserva precisamente en el Museo de Louvre en París- apuntan a que este ha sido siempre el objetivo de la sociedad.

The story of Jesus according to himself

The story of Jesus and his father told by himself -also narratively- is found in the three synoptic gospels and has very little to envy the narratives of the Dardenne brothers. The story includes a landlord, a workers union, a son and a myriad of social injustices. The authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke add few variations on this same parable that came to them by oral tradition around AD 68 and 90:

′There was a man, the father of a family, who planted a vineyard, fenced it off, dug a wine press in it, built a tower, and leased it to some farmers, and went far away. And when the time of the fruits drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, so that they might receive the fruits of him. But the husbandmen took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. He again sent other servants, more than the first; and they did to them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying: They will respect my son. But the husbandmen, when they saw the son, said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance. And taking him, they threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. So when the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those husbandmen? They said to him: He will destroy the wicked without mercy, and will rent his vineyard to other husbandmen, who will pay him the fruit at his time. Jesus said to them: Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected, Has become the head of the corner. The Lord has done this, And is it a wonderful thing in our eyes? Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and it will be given to people who will produce the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; and on whom she falls, he will crush her. And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they understood that he was speaking of them. But when they looked for a way to get hold of him, they feared the people, because they considered him a prophet.

The best intentions do not always help and it is not surprising that Jesus sums up the law with only two commandments: ′love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself.′ Good intentions are not necessary in this context because love is expressed in actions. We are used to fixing a law and spoiling the law of the one next to it at the same time. It is due to this evident, historical and proven inability to create common rules that bring true justice to people and in a stable way that the external intervention of God′s grace is necessary.

I speak like a parent when I say that in the best of cases, parents are overwhelmed by the inability to offer what we believe is best to our own children. It is also the case of the mother of the well-meaning young Muslim who tries to assassinate her teacher in ′Le Jeune Ahmed (2019). The apostle John describes God as a father who, unlike us, not only listens and plans but is also capable and acts at the right time: ′For God so loved the world′ - he writes - ′that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life.


This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as La incansable búsqueda moral de los hermanos Dardenne


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