Tuesday 16 October 2018

Dear Son (Mohamed Ben Attia, 2018)

The Dardenne brothers serve as co-producers on social realist drama Dear Son, with the influence of the esteemed Belgian auteurs very much in evidence; the film contains many features familiar from the Dardennes' work, such as natural, authentic performances, judicious editing, and a cinéma verité sensibility.  Likewise, the domestic crises which so often form the basis of the brothers' films are present here, and you wouldn't be too surprised if someone told you that Jean-Pierre and Luc were the film's actual directors; high praise indeed for Mohamed Ben Attia.

The film, which screens today at the London Film Festival, sees amiable dock worker Riadh edging towards retirement, while he and wife Nazli enjoy a fairly peaceful life in their modest Tunis apartment.  The only real worry they have concerns their son, Sami, who is nearing both the end of school and some critical exams.  Sami is a polite, studious but rather withdrawn boy, and his academic exertions appear to be taking their toll: migraines and vomiting are a regular occurrence, yet all medical tests come back clear.  He's not a loner by any means, and we see him attend a party with some school friends; however, the relative feebleness of Sami's smile in a group selfie is noticeable.  Much later on, Riadh will find himself in a similar situation: at the end of his rope while a celebration rages all around.

With Riadh and Nazli growing increasingly concerned, the situation takes a drastic downturn as Sami suddenly disappears.  His schoolmates can shed no light on where their friend may be, but it soon becomes clear to both us and Sami's parents where the youth is headed.  His destination is slightly too obvious - although there have been few, if any, explicit clues up until now that this was in the offing.  Riadh takes it upon himself to track down the errant Sami, selling the family car and scratching together enough money to fund a trip which we all - Riadh included - know is unlikely to end in success.

As Riadh, Mohamed Dhrif is note-perfect, with his careworn features conveying way more than his dialogue as the father's worries escalate.  It's as good a performance as you'll see this year; not remotely showy, but always completely believable  The film also has some subtle, interesting points to make about parent-child relationships, especially those where the offspring have left the family home.  At one point, a defeated Riadh says all he wants is for his son to be happy; the wise man he's engaged in conversation with claims that while all parents say that, in truth it's the parents' own happiness which matters.  This is a sad, poignant and moving work, yet one which unexpectedly ends on a quite lovely grace note.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net