The Oscars can be an interesting beast. While most of the pictures nominated for the various awards arrive in theaters or on VOD/home video relatively close to the show’s air date (most in theaters before the year’s end due to qualifying rules), the foreign films are often the odd ones out. With half of the entrants for the award often never seeing US shores, some are only just now getting set to roll out for their first US theatrical release. Films like Afghanistan’s The Patience Stone are getting ready to bow, finally, and one of the most rewarding pictures from last year’s Best Foreign Language Film slate started its theatrical run only last Friday.
Belgium’s entrant, Our Children, arrived in theaters in extremely limited release last week (expanding this weekend), and it is without a doubt one of the more affecting dramas you’ll see this year.
From the opening shot of this breathtaking drama from director Joachim Lafosse, we become privy to what is ostensibly the film’s conclusion, and it’s a harsh one. Murielle, mother and wife, laying on what we all believe to be her deathbed, telling someone that they have to bury the children in Morocco. And this is the film’s first two to three minutes. What follows is not the repercussions of that moment, but instead the moments that led up to that terror. Her and her husband’s, Mournir, wedding day, the various children they have, and everything in between, this film is brazenly intimate and brutally real. It’s all culminates in simply one of 2013’s most underrated dramas.
While the trio of stars, Emilie Dequenne, Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, are all unanimously great, Lafosse is the film’s real star. Lafosse’s fourth feature, this film is a startlingly vital piece of work, a piece of neo-realism that takes away the inherent energy of a standard feature film, and puts in its place a quaint stillness that truly gives the viewer the feeling of having the camera as their eyes into this world. Free of any tricks or bombastic set pieces, Lafosse’s camera is plaintive, often times placed back a foot too far, turning the viewer into a voyeur looking into this relationship truly on the brink. With equally natural photography from cinematographer Jean-Francois Hensgens (probably best known for his work on the hardly seen Halle Berry vehicle Dark Tide), the film becomes both aesthetically thrilling and a heartbreakingly natural character study that itself is based on an actual Belgian tragedy.
It also helps that the cast universally gives brilliant performances. Dequenne is the best of the bunch here as the mother who we first meet in what is likely her final moments. She and Tahar Rahim have such interesting chemistry that ultimately goes from their beginnings as a truly loving couple into something far darker come the film’s final scenes. Their relationship feels utterly palpable and disturbingly raw, with their performances feeling the opposite of theatrical. Yes, the film is steeped in inherent melodrama, but the performances aren’t reaching for those emotional heights, instead opting for raw realism and emotional resonance. Toss in Arestrup as Andre Pinget, their family doctor and Mounir’s adoptive father of sorts, and you have a film that is as resonant emotionally as it is truly haunting aesthetically.
Clocking in at just shy of two hours, the film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. As slow a burn as one could possibly experience, the opening frames will hook those interested in the inherent drama, but may lose some due to the quiet, ultimately muted, aesthetic. However, those willing to turn themselves over to the naturalistic melodrama and absolute terror that follows (the film is ostensibly a familial horror film in the body of a neo-realist psychodrama), will never let go. It’s a film that asks increasingly difficult questions about things like love and family, and never allows the viewer to find real definitive answers. The film’s final moments will leave some viewers turned off due to its abruptness, but it is truly a thrilling and utterly devastating conclusion that makes this an unforgettable drama. Inarguably one of 2013’s best dramas, Our Children will hopefully become one of the more talked about foreign features to arrive stateside this year. It is more than deserving of any and all praise that’s coming its way.