Le fils (2002) dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne fils2The movies are full of revenge fantasies. There's a drive for revenge that is embedded in the human psyche, but few of us ever have the opportunity to enact it. Social and legal mores block us from doing the things we really want to those we feel have wronged us. The justice system, with its long, winding paths, doesn't give villains the same direct punishment and visceral, emotional satisfaction we imagine The Bride or Mattie Ross got in Kill Bill and True Grit.

As a consequence, it's even more rare that we get the chance to exercise forgiveness. Forgiveness to someone once was not able to punish anyway, or to someone who will remain safely behind bars regardless of your attitude towards them, is little more than a psychological exercise. It may be a very real, very meaningful act, but its consequences lie entirely in the spiritual world. When we run into a situation in which we have the opportunity to punish or not punish, we nearly invariably find a reason to eschew mercy. "Justice demands it," we think. "We must set an example, must be consistent," are the lies we tell ourselves to avoid acknowledging that we prefer revenge to mercy.

le filsOur revenge fantasies are fun. Our forgiveness fantasies are sacred. They all hearken back to sacred scripture. The Dardenne Brothers cast their forgiveness story in the context of a carpenter's son.

Like Robert Bresson and Vittorio de Sica before them, the Dardennes use realist techniques to bring their religious fantasies down to earth. "We asked each other: How can we do this without seeming angelic?" they explain in the DVD commentary. They don't want you to be able to dismiss forgiveness as something only for saints. They want it to seem real - they want you to believe it.