MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2017
Genre: Drama Director: Eugène Green
I hesitate to describe the plot, characters, and relationships in Eugène Green’s The Son of Joseph, as part of its power lies in not necessarily knowing where it’s going or how it’ll get there, apart from the seemingly inevitable conclusion suggested by its title. The film’s themes include art, fatherhood, familial identity, adolescence, and God–each weighty in themselves, and set within the narrative construct with intentionality and focus. As the title suggests, the story somewhat parallels the tale of the Holy Family, with a few nods to the Genesis 22 narrative about the sacrifice of Isaac and the fatherly faith struggle of Abraham. These biblical allusions are quite intentional, and characters openly ask questions about the nature of God and the presence of the divine in human interactions and moral decisions. Green places the scriptural story within a modern-day secular Parisian setting, with a beautiful and forlorn single mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), trying to connect with her unsettled adolescent son, Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), who is searching for his absentee father. When Vincent discovers his paternal origins, it sets him off on an unexpected journey into violent crime and heartwarming mentorship, particularly in his budding relationship with Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), a man Vincent literally bumps into in his quest.
I imagine many audiences would be put off by Eugène Green’s formal approach. He shoots dialogue sequences with the characters facing the camera directly, looking right into the audience’s eyes (and hearts) as the actors give understated, even stilted performances akin to the films of Robert Bresson. The framing and camera movement are so deliberate as to be conspicuous, the emotions communicated by the audience’s empathy with the circumstances themselves more than performed by the actors or the score. It’s at-once distancing and intimate, invitational though initially perceived as aloof. Green is inviting us to watch, to listen, to slow down and pay attention, just as we would (or should) with any beautiful work of art before us. In one of the opening scenes, two random characters are walking along, riveted by their handheld electronic screens until they collide with one another. We then notice Vincent come into view, center screen, these distracted characters framing his intense gaze into the camera. Green is asking the audience, “Are you giving this your full attention?” His characters visit museums, parks, and churches to view the paintings, sculptures, and architecture, respectively. They quietly survey what’s before them, hardly saying a word. When they do talk, the oration is steady and droll, the actors’ arms akimbo, their posture nearly absent of body language. It doesn’t feel quite human or relatable. The magic and mystery of Green’s approach is that the final tale ends up quite affecting and humane. Its emotional gravitas builds slowly and covertly until you’re in its grasp without ever realizing you’ve been overcome.
The Son of Joseph is thoughtful, affecting, and clever in its questions about the nature and value of art. Green contrasts divergent approaches to art through the film’s two father figures. One views art as a commodity to sell, a product sold through galas and press releases, surrounded by silly columnists and bloggers, each disconnected from themselves and others. The other views art as a gift to behold in the context of community, something which evokes a sense of the divine even as it draws people into more intimate relationships. One of these approaches will be more financially lucrative in our Western consumerist culture, but the other will be the more fulfilling treasure. I’m not surprised the film was produced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, sibling filmmakers who created and celebrate the simple and profound beauty of the seventh art. The Son of Joseph is just the kind of art worth seeking and contemplating as it challenges the audience’s conceptions and expectations.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4741774/