Modern Prodigals

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 25]

This contains spoilers (of a 2005 film) so you may want to watch first and read after.

I had to wait until the end to see if it was worth it, but the answer is an unequivocal yes to L’Enfant (The Child).

I found it on Image Journal‘s “The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films,” which also brought to my attention Ordet. This is the first film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne I’ve watched, but the others are now on my list.

It’s one of those films where you simply don’t know if it’s going to pay off, but because it only runs 90 minutes, you’re willing to take the risk (or, at least, I was). You know things are not going to go well when the first scene shows a teenage mother, just released from the maternity ward, searching for the father of her child. She finds him involved in some sort of scheme, far more interested in a man coming out of a pub than in his newborn son.

Sonia (Déborah François) naively assumes that Bruno (Jérémie Renier—who, I assume, is the French counterpart to Jeremy Renner) will demonstrate some kind of paternal concern, but the viewer can see more clearly that he is only interested in using anything and anyone to make a little cash. You know from the synopsis and from the foreshadowing comments of his buyer that he’s going to try to sell the child, but his apparently total lack of care for the child is shocking, even in our anti-child culture. Regret comes only when he’s surprised(!) that Sonia isn’t happy at how much money he’s made from having the child “adopted.” And then Bruno assumes that when he gets the child back, Sonia will be pleased and automatically forgiving.

It struck me that the over-arching question is to whom the title refers. Does it refer, as one might assume, to the baby, who is little more than a prop, or does it actually refer to Bruno? Clearly, “child” is not a compliment; it’s much closer to childish than any sense of childlike innocence. Bruno, like a young child, has no concept of the consequences of his actions, even when he is forced to feel them, as when Sonia kicks him out of the apartment. He knows he should apologize, and does, but still he doesn’t understand why he should apologize. It is, as the theologians say, attrition and not contrition.

Sonia, too, is still a child. She happily assumes the goodness of Bruno though it is hard to see that she’s ever been given any reason to think he will do the right thing. She and Bruno chase each other around as if they’re on the playground, rather than homeless and riding in a car rented with stolen money. But where Bruno cares about no one but himself, Sonia is bound to Jimmy, the child that she rarely puts down—all the more after Bruno returns him to her.

In light of what we know of Bruno, with more than ample evidence throughout the film, we are surprised that he finally does one right thing and takes the due consequences of a heist into which he pulled his young accomplice Thomas (not unwillingly, however). But every scene, every detail, every bit of knowledge we’ve received about Bruno’s depravity builds to the concluding scene of forgiveness and reconciliation—and the viewer is left with a bitter taste, because it’s almost too much.

This is about as close as a modern film has ever gotten to what I suspect Jesus wants us to feel in the parable of the son who goes off and squanders his father’s wealth and, coming back, is welcomed without a single sign of concrete repentance. No doubt our inner voices are yelling at Sonia not to take him back. We know how this is going to turn out: just like every other time she’s accepted him back into her love. How much can she take? How many wounds are too many?

I have no idea where the Dardennes stand with respect to Jesus, but they’ve captured the shocking nature of the Gospel that Jesus preaches. Any shock or distaste we feel at the final scene is exactly the shock and distaste we naturally (according to our sin-filled and prideful flesh) feel at the parable of the prodigal and even at Jesus’ unconditional welcome of sinners into His love. Doesn’t He know better? How much can He take? How many wounds and betrayals are too many? And how in the world can He take back such sinners as, we think, are only going to go back to the same old patterns and behavior—because they never seem to demonstrate anything else? When it comes to ourselves, of course, we can list the many reasons why He should be grateful to receive us with open arms. It’s the others we’re not sure about.

We’ve been lead to believe that Bruno is incapable of change and only interested in preserving himself. And yet, with the final moment, it seems as if Sonia’s love might actually bring Bruno to an approximation of true repentance and even transforming him into a person who, himself, might be able to love, finally turned outward to those around him.

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