Darkly moody Best Foreign Film winner an emotionally charged battle of the soul
Wonderfully cinematic and emotionally charged with testosterone, the Dutch import "Character" is impressively deserving of the Academy Award it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.
Director Mike van Diem's story of a bastard young man casting his entire essence into a battle of souls with his unacknowledging father is an impassioned surge of pent-up hostility set starkly against the cold, oppressive backdrop of a dark brick and cobblestone Rotterdam in the 1920s.
Powerful shadows and a rich palate of black, brown and gray help set a stifling mood in the film's opening scene, which finds young Katadreuffe (Fedja can Huet) accused of murder only hours after graduating law school.
Having spent many poverty-stricken years putting himself through college, for him to have committed such a crime just as he achieved his life's goal seems absurd. But as the story of his life unfolds in flashback, a strong possible motive begins to take shape.
The slain man was his disaffected father, the city's most feared and hated bailiff (in charge of eviction and debt litigation) and a wicked, conniving, powerful figure who had spent two decades persecuting Katadreuffe after having been rebuffed by his mother.
As Katadreuffe's life is recounted during his interrogation, we learn how his entire identity was formed around a bent determination to avenge himself on his father in some way by becoming a success in spite of the obstacles thrown in his path.
Having grown up in poverty under the stern hand of an emotionless mother, he seems doomed to fail in his every endeavor until the day he visits a law firm in preparation for bankruptcy and has an epiphany induced by the bustling urgency of the office atmosphere.
While there he finagles himself a job and begins a long, ambitious journey from file clerk to attorney -- an effort that is deliberately hampered by his father's apparently vicious rivalry.
van Diem shrewdly manipulates the mood of every scene with urgent camera movements and noirish lighting. With the help of a raw but measured performance by van Huet, he delivers the audience inside Katadreuffe's tenacious emotional state and vividly portrays how his tunnel vision ruins any chance he has at happiness.
"Character" does have the occasional flaw. The interrogation-framed narrative is a bit of a cheap gimmick -- as if the police would allow a long-winded autobiography from their detainee -- especially in light of the story's eventual outcome. But regardless of its minor shortcomings, this is a deeply provoking film.
From his intentional casting of unusual-looking actors with grave faces to his subtle manipulation of personalities -- he even manages to show a sympathetic side to the father -- van Diem's directorial orchestration is masterful. Films with this level of realistic empathy and pathos are a rare treat.