Going Into Labor

Two Marxist-minded Belgian brothers bring their prize-winning Rosetta to the new world of capital

CP: I haven't seen the documentaries, but it seems from their subjects that they have the same political motivation as the fiction films. Does narrative cinema have a different potential than documentary cinema to bring about change?

LUC DARDENNE: We don't make movies to change the world. We hope that the world is going to change, but we don't use movies to do that. If you have an objective in making a movie--like a desire to change things, or send a message--you tend to manipulate. And then you have propaganda, and that's dangerous. It's like publicity that tries to encourage you to buy this brand rather than that brand. Our only goal is to try to show "the naked man," as [Belgian writer] Georges Simenon would say--the human being, and how he or she would react in a given situation. Our characters aren't heroes; they're just human, with strengths and weaknesses. Now, things can happen between the movie and the audience. A viewer can begin to have different perceptions of the world because of the movie he's watching. But that's out of our grasp. It's wonderful when that kind of thing happens, but you can't control it. The movie has its own life; it has nothing to do with us anymore.

CP: That being the case, would you be equally comfortable making a film about someone of privilege?

The time is now, brothers: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne on the set of Rosetta
The time is now, brothers: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne on the set of Rosetta

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Hmmm [laughs]. That reminds me that I recently saw a documentary about [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, and in it someone asked him why he chose again and again to make films about the working class. His answer was simple: I'm not interested in the upper class. And I would answer the same: We film the people we're interested in.

CP: Why is it so rare for a film to display a class consciousness these days?

LUC DARDENNE: It's because class consciousness is disappearing from society. The impoverished have become pariahs--we don't see them. For the dominant culture to look at these people would be to admit a problem, to admit that society perhaps doesn't have a right to be the way it is. Generally, people decide either not to worry about [the poor] at all, or to do charity for them--which might help the problem somewhat, but it's basically another way of not looking at them.

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Maybe ignoring these people is also a way of saying that they don't have a right to a history of their own. Their story is always the same, and it's always a number, a statistic. It's interesting that when there is a movie about poor people, like Rosetta, people say it's "a social movie." Whereas if the character had a lot of money, people would say it's "a psychological movie."

CP: It seems fair to say that Rosetta reveals something that most people don't want to see, and that places it in a tradition of politically challenging documentary and narrative cinema. Which are the films in this tradition that have been most influential to you--or the ones you'd credit with opening people's eyes?

LUC DARDENNE: One film absolutely qualifies, and that is [1946's] Rome, Open City by [Roberto] Rossellini. It showed the Italians and the world that Italy both collaborated and fought with the Nazis. It was a new way of looking at Italy. [The Holocaust documentary] Night and Fog is another film that really changed things. Now, perhaps to contradict what I said previously, Rosetta has opened in Belgium and France and it's doing extremely well, which maybe shows that, at the end of the century, people are more ready to look at these issues than they were before.

CP: The two films you mentioned both mix documentary and narrative styles--like your own two narrative films. What is it about that mix that has such power?

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: It's a feeling you have when you watch the film that things are really happening--they're alive. The situation is not frozen into a time capsule; it's happening as you watch it. Nothing is too late.


Rosetta starts Friday at U Film Society; (612) 627-4430.

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