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'The Son' rises - above despair and cliché

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The main character of "The Son" is Olivier, a Belgian carpenter who's so hard-working and respectable that it's hard to imagine what this movie will be about. What drama could lie hidden in such a decent, ordinary life?

The answer starts to emerge when a teenager named Francis applies to be an apprentice. Olivier turns him down, but stays interested in the boy for reasons that aren't immediately clear.

He has plenty on his mind already - including his relationship with his former wife, Magali, who's now pregnant by a new boyfriend - and another preoccupation is the last thing he needs. But eventually we learn about a tragedy that's long haunted him: Several years earlier, the only child he had with Magali was killed in a petty crime. Francis was to blame.

Francis doesn't recognize Olivier - he was just a kid at the time - and he has no idea his new acquaintance was a victim of the crime that sent him to reform school for several years. Olivier keeps quiet because his thoughts are so conflicted. One part of him wants to explode in rage and retribution. But the wish for healing and reconciliation is also strong. So he bides his time, waiting to see what his own actions will turn out to be.

"The Son" features a virtuoso performance by Olivier Gourmet as the carpenter, but its primary creators are writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, gifted Belgian brothers who have developed a filmmaking style all their own. The camera stays obsessively close to Olivier, watching his actions and expressions so tenaciously that it comes to seem less like an impartial observer than an active participant.

In lesser hands, this might come off as a mere technical stunt, but the Dardennes use it sensitively and thoughtfully. The result is a psychological intensity - and a visual power - that few recent movies can match.

In other respects, "The Son" continues some trends in French-language film that Hollywood could learn from. The great majority of US movies take place in bustling cities or picturesque towns, and the idea that most people spend most of their time working is alien to Hollywood's mindset. "The Son" takes place far from Paris or other glamorous locations. And it resembles other recent European imports like "Time Out" and the Dardennes' "La Promesse" by putting labor at the story's center. This adds another level to the film's realism, not to mention its relevance to the lives we actually live.

Gourmet's portrayal won the best-actor award at last spring's Cannes film festival. "The Son" is Belgium's official submission to the coming Oscar race, and it's hard to think of a better candidate for best foreign-language film.

It shouldn't take awards to gain an audience for this extraordinary drama, though. It combines a fresh and exciting style with stunning performances and that rarity in current film, a deeply humanistic story.

Not rated; contains adult themes.

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