Friday, July 28, 2006


ROSETTA (1999, Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta.
You found a job. I found a job.
You found a friend. I found a friend.
You have a normal life. I have a normal life.
You won't fall into the rut. I won't fall into the rut.
Good night. Good night.

Rosetta is fierce – the character, as well as the film that bears her name. At the opening a hand-held camera pursues her down hallways, around corners, under steaming equipment. Doors slam, her employer intercepts her. "Why should I go?" He won't answer, she throws herself at him and bloodies his nose as another employee tries to restrain her. The police corner her in a bathroom stall, it takes three men to drag her away. All she wants is a job.

The film-makers describe ROSETTA as "a war film," and there is rarely a lull in Rosetta's battle for survival. She scrapes and scrounges to get by on the fringes of an economy that offers her no favours, no opportunity. She's the embodiment of desperation, of an animal courage that cannot entertain the luxury of making certain moral choices: anything she wants or needs she must fight for. At times she doubles up in pain, holding her stomach. We're never told what is wrong: are these menstrual cramps, or something like an ulcer, or the result of bad food and never enough of it? All we know is that this shouldn't be happening to a seventeen year old girl.

Rosetta lives in a decrepit trailer with her alcoholic mother, who trades sexual favors for liquor or a piece of fish they can eat for dinner – except when Rosetta drives the men away, shouting "My mother is not a whore!" She wrestles the fish away from her mother, who clutchess a kitchen knife, and throws it into the bush: better to eat what she can pull from the muddy stream nearby. There's a barely-contained frenzy in this girl, some kind of danger on the brink of despair that comes out in the way she walks on the verge of a run, struggles to carry a propane tank, digs in the dirt for worms, works with her hooks and hidden fishing lines – it's a matter of survival, and there isn't enough time to do everything that must be done. It's as if she's being always pursued by something deadly, some threat. No wonder her stomach hurts: mine did, watching.

Rarely will you see such an intensely committed and physicalized performance, such an uncompromisingly raw and truthful rendering of a human soul – except in every other Dardenne brothers film. Like Bresson, these directors frequently rely on untrained actors: unlike Bresson, they draw out impassioned, emotional and utterly compelling performances from their first-time talent. (Emilie Dequenne won the Cannes actress trophy for her portrayal of Rosetta.) They also rely on equally truthful work from highly accomplished actors, like the astonishing Olivier Gourmet who appears here as a gentle-but-pragmatic minor character that's as much of a contrast to the self-indulgent, self-interested father in LA PROMESSE as he is to the constricted, clenched shop teacher in THE SON – a performance which garnered him similar Cannes kudos.

If we're talking Bresson (and we should: his influence on these film-makers is everywhere evident), we might well turn our thoughts to those menacing mopeds, whose off-camera buzzing is as threatening here as it is in AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. And if Rosetta doesn't submit to her tormentors with the donkey's resigned humility, there is still something immensely noble in her suffering. The risk and relentlessness of ROSETTA grabs us in a visceral way that the French master avoids, yet there's something distinctly Bressonian in the way the film opens up its deepest mysteries upon reflection, over the hours and days that follow the final credits. Which may have something to do with the way both Bresson and the Belgians keep their focus entirely on cold, hard, ineluctable physical realities – the doing of mundane physical tasks, inscrutable faces, unexpected occurances, unexplained sounds – in a counter-intuitive effort to evoke unseen spiritual truth.

Whether a viewer identifies anything explicitly "spiritual" in this particular film will depend mostly on the person wielding the adjective. There are no apparent gestures toward God or religion, or even much sense of any more general sort of transcendent hope. There aren't in THE SON, either, but that film is so unwaveringly focused on themes of vengeance and the near-impossibility of forgiveness, on what it might take to reclaim a human soul –themes that are absolutely central to Jesus' gospel – that it's not hard for me to see the later film as distinctly spiritual, essentially Christian.

What is clear is that ROSETTA lives very much in the same universe as the Dardennes' other major films – one of the most artistically and thematically unified bodies of work to be found in cinema. A world of parents and children, of murders and near-murders and Abraham-Isaac catastrophes. Of hatred and love co-mingled, of fierce loyalties and heart-sickening betrayals. A workplace world, where routine physical tasks are performed and money changes hands. The learning and losing of vocation. Poverty, survival, desperation: crime and law, moral decisions worked out somewhere between resourcefulness and sin. Unvarnished, unsentimental characters who draw us to themselves not by their attractivenes, but by their naked and undeniable humanity. Life-and-death stakes, story-lines that drive relentlessly toward a moment of truth, an irreversible point of confrontation. Hand-held cameras. Abrupt endings.

ROSETTA placed first on the 2005 Arts & Faith poll of Spiritually Significant Films, and while that's partly due to a quirk in the survey's methodology that favoured off-the-beaten-track movies, the fact remains that a whole batch of Christian cinephiles rank this film up there with classic religious pictures you or I could more easily name. Having mulled this story for some time now, pondering the puzzle of its hidden spirituality, I come down to this: at the core of ROSETTA are a pair of questions. What will this girl do to get – and keep – a job? And in her world of marginal survival, is there anything more important? The answers, as embodied in this tough and uncompromising story, come very close to both the bad news and the good news at the heart of the gospel.


Available at Videomatica

No comments: