This year’s New York Film Festival has a bumper crop of political films that are undoubtedly connected to the stormy period we are living through. In years past, I would have not had the opportunity to attend press screenings since getting credentialed was a bureaucratic nightmare for anybody who was not a full-time paid employee of a print publication like the NY Times, the Village Voice, et al. But in recent years I have been invited to press screenings from one or another of a large number of film publicists who cut through the red tape because they are familiar with my coverage of political films. The dovetailing of interests might be indicated by the films I will be covering this year for the festival that begins on September 30th. My strong recommendation is for New Yorkers to consult the schedule since this is a banner year for the radical film buff as would be indicated by the following items:
- Neruda—a quirky but brilliant film about the Communist poet from Chile that I have already reviewed.
- The Thirteenth—a documentary about the Black liberation struggle made by Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma”.
- Aquarius—a Brazilian film about a 65-year old widow fending off a real estate developer trying to buy her apartment.
- I, Daniel Blake—a Ken Loach film about the British health system.
- The Unknown Girl—the latest Dardenne brothers film that I saw this morning and now review below.
Like “The Promise” and “Two Days, One Night”, “The Unknown Girl” examines the moral dilemmas facing people living in Belgian society where the possibilities of acting honorably are constrained by the capitalist system. In “The Promise”, a teenaged boy is forced by his racist father to keep secret the death of an undocumented worker from Africa. When he comes in contact with the man’s widow, he violates his father’s trust but discovers his own innate humanity. In “Two Days, One Night”, a woman pleads with co-workers from her factory to forsake a desperately needed year-end bonus so that she won’t be laid off.
The unknown girl referred to in the title is a seventeen-year old prostitute from Africa who buzzes to be let into the medical offices of Dr. Jenny Davin an hour after office hours have closed. Since her office is in a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Lieges with more than enough patients to make regular hours exhausting in themselves, the refusal to open the door does not seem particularly portentous.
The next morning cops show up at her door to inform her that the girl was found dead on the banks of the Meuse River, the result of a fractured skull probably due to a violent assault. Davin, a single woman in her thirties who seems to have no life outside of her patients, is stricken with guilt over finding this out. She might not have landed the blow but her keeping the doors closed was almost being an accessory after the fact since the girl was not a patient but someone fleeing an assailant. Will this tangled human relationship evoke Europe’s refusal to accept the refugees fleeing war and economic misery? One cannot be sure that this was the Dardenne brothers’ intention but on a subconscious level, it is entirely possible.
The girl’s body lacked any kind of identification papers so Dr. Davin begins to grow even more remorseful. Not only was she inadvertently responsible for her death; she has denied her family the knowledge of her passing since she is unknown. Buried in a potter’s field, she can only be identified by the newly dug up dirt above her coffin.
Like the factory worker who goes knocking on doors in “Two Days, One Night”, “The Unknown Girl” is also a film whose plot is driven by a similar voyage as the doctor contacts people one by one who might have run into the prostitute on the night she was killed. Can they tell her who she was? While there is an element of a detective story at work here, including facing the violence of men who do not want her snooping around, the film is much more an existential mystery as the doctor tries to persuade various men to unburden themselves of a secret. And like “Two Days, One Night”, the conversations become increasingly intense to the point of leaving you emotionally drained.
The film is made in the Dardenne brothers characteristically austere naturalistic style with no interest in melodrama, only in showing the daily grind of a doctor who in her spare moments plays amateur detective. Unlike no other film I have ever seen, this is one that really conveys the life of a doctor. Since the Belgian medical system pays for house visits, many of her calls bring her into touch with poor people who are socially isolated. Her presence seems to lighten up their day, including a young cancer patient. In some ways, she is as much a priest as a doctor, especially when she is trying to get someone to confess.
As is the case with their previous films, there is no film score. But that does not mean that the sound of the film was of no interest to the co-directors. You constantly hear passing cars on the highway below the office, just as I hear now on Third Avenue beneath my high-rise. The low growl of the motors and the hiss of the tires against the pavement are as effective as the strings in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.
I regard the Dardenne brothers as among a handful of directors who are continuing in the grand tradition of the masters of the 1950s and early 60s such as Kurosawa, Ray, Fellini and Truffaut. When you get an opportunity to grab one of their films, do not miss it. A word to the wise should be sufficient.