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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.16.12] Belgium drama

Never underestimate the power of an opening scene. It's not only the first introduction to a character, place or situation but it often sets the mood for the rest of the movie. There seems to be a minor trend, if you can call two movies a trend, this year to begin movies at the end. Michael Haneke's Amour (review) begins with the movie's final scene and it's clear from the very next scene that the movie's intent is to work it's way to that opening moment but the opening of Joachim Lafosse's Our Children is vaguer than Haneke's. In part it's the fact that Murielle is nearly unrecognizable in the opening scene and the next time we see her she's years younger, happy, healthy and fresh, but most notably it's the fact that she's mumbling something nearly incomprehensible that won't take on any meaning until the movie's closing scene.

Mounir (Tahar Rahim) is a young and handsome Moroccan man living with Andre (Niels Arestrup), his adoptive father who married his mother so that she could get her residency papers and then, likely for companionship, took the young Mounir out of Morocco and gave him a better life. Mounir meets Murielle, a school teacher, the two fall in love, get married and movie in with Andre who acts as family benefactor from the start. He provides Mounir with a job, extra spending money and when the children begin to arrive, an always present grandfather figure.

In quick succession one child turns into four and with each new baby, Murielle falls into a deeper depression. She's at home with the kids, responsible for cooking and cleaning and though she's only married to one man, she's ruled by both. Mounir directly dictates what happens on a daily basis but he's in debt to Andre for his lifestyle and when Andre pushes his wishes, Mounir bows. In the end, the entire family suffers from the power struggle but none more than Murielle who, feeling lost and incapable of continuing in the same way her life has been going, makes a rash, life changing decision.

Our Children deeply examines a number of ideas. It does a fine job of exploring the father/son relationship between Mounir and Andre, a relationship that takes on different characteristics as we learn more about Mounir's past, where he's come from and what Andre has done not only for him and his wife but also for his extended family. Andre's role is smaller in terms of screen time, but his power hovers over every frame of film, in part it's the way the character is written but also the fantastic performance from Niels Arestrup (re-teaming with Rahim for the first time since A Prophet) who plays the character with a quiet force, helpful and caring but a man never to be crossed. Mounir is a man-child, responsible for his family but only in-so-far as Andre supports him. He's incapable of standing up to the older man, leading to tragic results.

With such strongly defined male characters it's rather surprising that the character of Murielle feels sidelined, even though the movie's climax rests squarely on her shoulders. Emilie Dequenne gives a fantastic performance, one of the best of the year, but her character is underwritten with little information on her background and the events that shape the woman she becomes. Yet the script also feels like it's paralleling the unfolding story: Murielle is a marginalized character, it's what pushes her into madness, and the movie's unwillingness to delve into her past feels more like choice than an oversight.

Our Children offers up much more than the average family drama, exploring themes and ideas that are often overlooked, but the movie's gut punch of an ending makes it nearly impossible to watch a second time, at least any time in close succession to a first viewing. Our Children is a must see but pay extra close attention because it's likely you'll never see it again.

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