Education, parental relations and identity are at the heart of the movies filmed on both sides of the Mediterranean

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There is a problem that is bigger than the attacks that so frequently bloody the streets in the West. A problem that does not only concern the security of European cities or the ability to welcome immigrants on the increasingly liquid borders of the world we inhabit. The problem that bedevils and consumes us—and is also hard to convey at the cinema—is one for fathers, requiring them to recognise the monster that is devouring our children, give it a name and fight it, whether it be the Islamic radicalism arriving from ever closer to home—indeed, growing on our doorsteps—or the blithe nihilism that equalizes everyone and everything. We need to be a bit like the prophets if we are to recognise that the problem has more to do with education than politics, being a matter of how we look at things. It takes courage to say that looking at the world is something that has to be learned, even if it is hard to teach this skill using words.


The time for joking is now over; there’s no longer any room for caricatures of the relationship between religion and tradition and for puppets exchanging roles in the play. Some people are trying, with varying results, to insert questions about identity into the “normal” stories, without touching directly on the uncomfortable themes of terrorism and radicalization. They are, above all, directors from the countries that have suffered the most: like Belgium or France, where there were five attacks in 2018 alone and where the authorities have closed mosques (including those in Grenoble and Marseilles) in which books and documents exalting armed jihad, hatred for non-believers and violence against women have been found. Abdellatif Kechiche, a second-generation Tunisian director and idol of the French intelligentsia, tells us something about sentimental education on the beaches of Marseilles during the 1990s. In his diptych Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno and Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo—where the word destiny (mektoub) appears right from the start, in the title—he tells of the dizzying desire marking the holidays of a multi-ethnic group of teenagers but also of the bitter presentiment of the end and the void that renders Amin, the protagonist, different from the others, whether they be French or Tunisian. It is an emptiness that you can touch, that hurts and that, sooner or later, will be filled with something and someone, with a new hope or the cynicism of a country only for old men.


Yvan Attal’s comedy Le Brio tells us something about education, but only to emphasize the lack of it. The meeting between Neïlah, a second-generation Moroccan who lives in the suburbs and is studying to become a lawyer, and Pierre, a cynical and provocative professor who could not be more Parisian, plays out in the halls of a prestigious university. The film is not predictable, even if the clash between the two becomes a competition about integration: one that, in the name of political correctness, will be won by the Arab girl’s vitality. What is interesting is the rhetoric that he teaches and she learns perhaps a little too quickly: that art that uses everything to win consensus, that fil rouge that has handed Europe over on a plate to the “masters of suspicion”. Facing the paradoxes issuing from the professor’s mouth with such a bitter ring—“Eloquence is what I want to teach you, being ‘right’. Who gives a toss about the truth!”—Neïlah is quick to respond, “I swear I’ll tell the truth, even if I lie through my teeth”.


The attitude with which Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne approach young, second-generation Arabs is decidedly different: realism, concern and not even a shadow of that superficial cynicism or embarrassing conciliatory attitude that has led Europe to be afraid even of its own shadow. With the Dardenne brothers, we’re in the presence of prophets: another breed and another class. The two brother directors live and work in Belgium. They have set some of their most beautiful films, from l’Enfant to Rosetta, in Molenbeek, the quarter of Brussels that sadly became famous as the “Jihadist capital of Europe”. At the most recent Cannes festival, they presented Le Jeune Ahmed and won their umpteenth prize: this time, the Award for Best Director. If the synopsis is truly basic—“a Belgian adolescent plans to kill his teacher after subscribing to an extremist interpretation of the Qur‘an”—the film itself is complex, courageous and rich in nuances and paradoxes. Choosing to tell the story of a young thirteen-year-old boy who lives next door to us means, even before passing judgment on radicalized Islam, talking about our own lives, taking some measure of responsibility and hoping against every hope. In short, loving even before we understand and rooting for Ahmed, together with his mother and the girl who, as the Dardenne brothers state, “represents life’s call: smiles at him, keeps him company and reminds him that he is still alive”. And, in the meantime, with the prophet’s squint-eyed gaze, keeping an eye on what is happening, without any conciliatory bending over backwards but also without resignation, and not losing sight of that mark of death that, day by day, is gradually gaining ground in the young boy’s life, through the memory of his martyred cousin, the imam and his friends.


The Dardenne brothers are prophetic as directors but also as producers, to judge by the first fruits of their commitment. Dear Son (Weldi) was realised in 2018 by Mohammed Ben Attia, a revelation of a director from the new Tunisian cinema. It explores the fragile reality of a country that, in 2011, opened its doors to fundamentalism after the revolution. Set in Tunis, where Riadh works as a machine operator in the port, it describes his relationship with his son, Sami, who is preparing for his baccalaureat. The boy suffers from migraines, spends a lot of time on his computer and then, at a certain point, disappears. A message on Facebook will reveal to his parents that he has gone to Syria. As the director tells us, there are not a few fathers in Tunisia who have had to discover in their sons a mal de vivre that is often incomprehensible to the young men themselves. “I wanted to highlight an existential malaise, a dissatisfaction with life that is difficult to explain.” One doesn’t need to show attacks or foreign fighters to portray the fragility of an ego that no longer has any roots, on either this or the other side of the ocean. However, it is also important to point a finger at what came before: family, the environment, politics and education.


Fatwa is another film to reach us from Tunisia. It is 2013 and the Jasmine Revolution has ended, leaving a trail of bereavements and ruin in its wake, as the Tunisian-Belgian director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud shows us. A man arrives, in a devastated state, in Tunis airport, where a policeman explains that his son, Marouane, has died in a motorbike accident while he was returning to his mother’s house at night. After the revolution, Brahim had emigrated to France to promote Tunisian tourism (the same tourism that, two years later, was to be attacked directly in the attacks carried out by the Islamic State). Re-seeing, in such dramatic circumstances, the wife he had divorced deeply disturbs him: she is a progressive who no longer believes in anything, whilst he tends to respect traditions. They do not even manage to agree about the funeral. But the worst is still to come: there is a new imam at the mosque. They tell him that his son had become very religious, very devout. Thus the film becomes a journey to the heart of a son who is no longer there, of a father who questions himself about his own absence and of a country needing to be rebuilt, amidst contradictions and wounds.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Emma Neri, “Fathers Wrestling with Their Children’s Mal de Vivre”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 140-2.

Online version:
Emma Neri, “Fathers Wrestling with Their Children’s Mal de Vivre”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/fathers-wrestling-with-their-childrens-mal-de-vivre