Extremism Burns Slowly in the Mind of ‘Young Ahmed’

The Dardenne brothers’ “Young Ahmed” is a complex and unsettling portrait of radicalization.

A student walks to school with a sinister plot against their teacher. The Dardenne brothers' film “Young Ahmed” was the recipient of the Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. (Staff Photo by Jake Capriotti)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Young Ahmed” is deceptively bright. The first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on the film is the quality of the light. It barely features a hint of cool-colored light or blue-tinged shadows shot, mostly in the daytime, specifically during sun-filled afternoons. This would provide a pleasant warmth if it weren’t so jarring. 

The lighting stands in harsh contrast to the story of Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a Belgian teen who has been taken under the wing of his congregational leader, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), and fueled by an extremist interpretation of the Quran. Though his family disapproves of his intense, almost obsessive, religious worship, Ahmed adamantly supports the radical language passed to him by Youssouf. This leads him to plan his Arabic teacher Madame Ines’ (Myriem Akkhediou) murder and subsequently lands him in a correctional discipline program.   

While the film is not a thriller, its subject matter paired with the performance of lead actor Ben Addi weave an unsettling sense of tension through each scene. The story feels particularly current due to the cinematography, featuring mostly handheld camerawork that evokes a documentary style with active and alert movement. Classic cinematic elements — steadily crescendoing score, ultra-stylistic lighting — used to dictate emotions or incite conclusions are unnecessary to spark subconscious occurrences of nail-biting. In fact, dramatic add-ons seem superfluous when Ben Addi’s stone-faced obstinacy and determination magnetize attention to wherever he stands on screen. His blank stare could easily be confused for a lack of expression, but his cold, hardened gaze forms the pulse at the core of the film, an inner world of dangerous disquiet commanding a sharp feeling of urgency.  

Ben Addi’s portrayal of Ahmed is most striking due to the nonchalant, casual air with which he expresses his thoughts in a deadpan manner that verges on total emotionlessness.  It’s clear that the radical ideology of Ahmed’s jihadist cousin and of his imam has deeply influenced his religious practice and how he manifests his belief outwardly towards his peers, his family and especially the women in his life.  

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He unflinchingly internalizes his imam’s ideas, especially the remark that his teacher Madame Ines is an apostate whose Arabic lessons featuring songs instead of strict readings of the Qur’an are blasphemous. Even Ahmed’s family is unexcused from intense scrutiny: in a dinner conversation-turned-argument early on, Ahmed yells that his sister (Cyra Lassman) is a slut and calls his mother (Claire Bodson) a drunk for drinking wine with her meal. His mother becomes distressed, saying Ahmed would never have started behaving this way if his father was around, to which Ahmed retorts that if his father were around, she would never have “given in.”  It is precisely these responses that makes the “Young” in “Young Ahmed” appear ironic as Ahmed demonstrates his capacity to inflict pain and sway the last word.   

Ahmed seems to derive a certain satisfaction from the power he holds in reducing his mother and Madame Ines to tears. The shock, grief and disbelief he spurs is simultaneously disturbing and captivating, leaving the question: how could this happen? This followed by an even more serious and alarming concern for the permanency of his action. One wonders whether Ahmed will ever get it as he clings to a plan of violence.  

The events leading toward the film’s end stir a flourishing sentimentality as Ahmed’s toughness begins to unravel in a display of conflicting emotions that expose an underlying innocence accompanying his youth. But the ending itself feels too dramatic, an in-your-face moment of the perilous persistence of Ahmed’s extremism, which the film seems to warn against. A quick and abrasive conclusion contradicts the hope for an honest and profound change the film seemed to be working toward, obscuring the Dardenne brothers’ objective or at least more difficult to define.

In their latest film, the Dardenne brothers have a portrait of a radicalized Muslim youth that demands discussion to last beyond an 84-minute runtime. The complexity of “Young Ahmed” reveals the fragile line between worship and fanaticism as experienced by a boy who is acutely vulnerable despite the guarded front he presents. 

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, print edition. Email Alexandra Bentzien at [email protected]

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