My film of the week is Belgian drama Black****, which might be termed West Side Story meets La Haine, all set in the ghettos of Brussels.
A Moroccan boy Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) and an African girl Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio) fall in love while their rival gangs, the 1080 and the Black Bronx, from their opposing districts conduct fights on the underground, malls and housing estates of the city.
The film has energy to burn, a youthfully ambitious template from its debut directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah which quite happily borrows from Goodfellas and City of God for its swooping takes in an out of secret nooks. There’s a even a nod, I’m sure, to the Scorsese directed video for Michael Jackson’s Bad.
But the dialogue fizzes with colloquialisms I’ve never heard on the big screen before, a melange of French, Flemish, patois, Arabic and local slang. Without trying to be gritty and “real”, the film has a real pop style and flashiness but its freshness of language and setting prevent any of it from feeling cliched – all these little gangsters think they’re something they’ve seen in movies, so the heightened style suits the swagger. It doesn’t have to look “real” to be upsetting, particularly its scenes of violence towards the female gang members.
The film was banned from release in France, due as it was to come out shortly after the Paris attacks. You can see why it might have been incendiary and dangerous to have crowds of young Africans and Muslims descending on cinemas during that period of heightened security and sensitivity, so it was probably the right decision – however, that only makes you respect the art more.
One of the areas depicted is Molenbeek, which is where the chief suspects in those Paris attacks came from (it is often labelled “Europe’s jihadi capital” or, more recently headlined in the New York Times as “the Islamic State of Molenbeek”) but you get the feeling this movie understands the place and it’s youth far more deeply than any number of news reports could ever do.
I hope the film does come out in France and attract large numbers of youths to the movies – there were reports of fights at several Belgian sites and while I don’t condone this, of course, it does seem to me that any film that can provoke such a following and a fervour should be taken note of in this era when blockbusters simply want to pack in young audiences then anaesthetise them.
Meanwhile, I just liked Black because it’s exciting, racial, angry, cool, stylish, violent and complicated, something you rarely see in European cinema. It takes you into a world we all know is there but mostly elect to ignore. Don’t miss it now.