A lot of the action in The Unknown Girl takes place in a clinic that, unlike a hospital, functions as a mediator that takes care of the basic health needs of the local residents, or refers them to more specialized treatment elsewhere. It’s the kind of structure that benefits from a bigger intimacy between the physician and their patients, relying on a combination between allopathy and social attention – a service which is also often used as a ladder for more qualified and better paid positions.
That is definitely the case of Jenny (Adèle Haenel), the protagonist of the new movie by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. When the film begins she already has one foot out the door, ready to move to a different clinic that carries clear signs of a change in status quo: the walls coated with bright primary colors are replaced with glass dividers; the coming and goings down the corridor converge to the sign with her name at the door of her new office – a form of identification that comments on the film’s title. Meanwhile, the doctor sees the patients who stop by, says goodbye to the ones she built a strong relationship with – there’s a beautiful musical scene in that regard, whose emotional transparency redeems the questionable cliffhanger that sets it up – and tries to pass some of what she’s learned there to Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), the intern who shadows her everywhere.
It’s an exciting beginning, due both to the dignity that Adèle Haenel lends the character in these first few minutes and to the work of the filmmakers’ itself in the articulation of this first act. Even though the Dardenne brothers have been sinking deeper and deeper into heavy handed narrative determinism disguised as humanist storytelling – a trajectory that seemed to have gone as low as it could go with The Kid with a Bike (2011) – the first minutes of The Unknown Girl revamp the craftsmanship that cornered some of the best critics into disproportionate good will regarding their work: a creative use of color; an instrumental mastery of fly-on-the-wall realism; an attention to the way seemingly unimportant daily events might impose themselves as dramatically exemplary, even in their most violent aspects; a talent for finding great faces capable of externalizing a conflict which is mostly internal and silent.
In the first fifteen or twenty minutes, The Unknown Girl breathes, and at least this breath doesn’t carry the weight of a bad omen. All the aforementioned elements appear with certain vigor, even though the directors’ toolkit doesn’t seem to hold any more revelation or surprises. In their case, that’s always been asking too much.
But then one of the patients has a seizure, breaking through the active tranquility of the diegesis, and Julien, the dedicated intern, freezes before his duty. His great weakness, he confesses much later, was that he looked at the boy shaking on the floor and saw a reflection of himself. Jenny manages to take care of the kid on her own, but the epistemological cut has already happened, not only for the master-apprentice relationship but also for the movie itself: how can one look at a body who suffers under external forces and not do something about it? Times of crisis make this basic ability to relate to someone else an unaffordable luxury. And after a self-righteous speech about the necessity of keeping emotional neutrality in this profession – a speech that already shows the heavy claws in those old heavy hands – someone rings the door, she insists that Julien doesn’t open it, and brace yourselves: damnation is on its way.
It won’t be long until that muted inciting incident screams the irony of its misfortune: a body was found at a construction site nearby. And if the wheel of responsibility keeps turning without squeaks, of course it must be the body of the woman who knocked at the door that night who Jenny – in a mere affirmation of authority – kept from being helped, going against the principle of her own vocation. It’s also only natural that the woman in question is an African immigrant and that The Unknown Girl will slowly be shaped as an allegory about the current European geopolitical situation. It doesn’t take much to predict that this journey can only end well for one of the sides involved.
In 1986, Fredric Jameson wrote a famous and problematic article entitled Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism, in which he points out the acute resistance of first world readers to third world literature, especially when they are closer to a canon (the novel, for example) that feels closer to home, due to the perception that every third world text is ultimately an allegory. “The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society”, he wrote. This allegorical dimension was seen as extinct not only from the texts but from the very basic vocabulary of the readers in the first world, as the result of a process through which capitalism promoted “a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud versus Marx.” Considering the allegorical vocation of cinema made in a third world country such as Brazil, which has been deeply analyzed by Ismail Xavier in Allegories of Underdevelopment and Historical Allegory (in Toby Miller and Robert Stam’s A Companion to Film Theory), the transposal of his literary observations to cinema can be done without aggressive adaptations.
However, between then and now a new component seems to have transformed this relationship: terrorism. The experience of domestic deterritorialized threats has proved to be a fuel for the cinema of what Jameson still referred to as the “first world”, reorienting the production to a kind of rediscovery of the allegory – or at least a big change in status, since it never ceased to be present in genre films, for example. After 9/11, a series of North American films – M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004); George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005); Wes Craven’s Red Eye; Abel Ferrara’s Maria (2005); Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007) – have reacted to the recent events with reflections on the forces of identity now shaken by terror and claimed the spotlight of international critical discussion. What made those films so impressive was their individual ability to find more than a mimetic representation of the specific historical moment (the George Orwell syndrome) in the latent allegorical microcosm: they revealed a more lasting trace of identity that investigated the part in order to understand the whole. The opposite direction often ended up in vengefulness (Dogville, by Lars Von Trier) or decadentism (The White Ribbon, by Michael Haneke).
In this first film made after the recent events in Europe that earned Belgium a prominent position in the map of terror, the Dardennes take a different, yet no less complicated direction in search of answers: instead of noting the potential of the individual as a narrator of the historical process, they choose to reduce the historical process to the level of the individual. Their mission is then to subsume History in the personal journey, absolving its heroine from her contradictions with hope that, perhaps, that might fix the country. The Unknown Girl is a sort of reverse allegory.
Given the fleeting and insufficient image captured by her own security camera, Jenny impertinently takes charge of a parallel investigation, as the movie takes up the impertinence of posing as Citizen Kane (1941). What follows is an Eliot Ness-like search that disregards an entire social pact and does not hide the motivation of simply purging its personal guilt. For that, the directors make use of conventions one would normally identify with genre film, but allow themselves to be freed from the burden of having to renew the genre – in other words: genre film that doesn’t want to really be a genre film, but cannibalizes its structure for allegorical convenience.
Out of guilt, Jenny keeps her former job and turns her back to the future of possibilities that awaited her. Out of guilt, she crosses the lines of ethics, if not for the militiary desire to enforce a parallel law, at least to satisfy her own curiosity. Out of guilt, she gets tangled in a jumbled web of sexual exploitation, privileges and the occasional intimidation that never seems to be believably able to threaten her physical integrity or her peace of mind. Even the dead woman here carries the lightness of a McGuffin. The realism of the Dardenne brothers is an oxymoron: it transforms the streets into a studio, faits divers into soap opera.
That pleasant draft one could feel during the first act is slowly strangled by the causal obsession among picaresque events, and Jenny, despite Haenel’s best efforts, gradually runs out of breath, poisoned by the paleness of her own determination. The viewer is left with the opportunity to wait for the agony to end: since this journey is one of atonement and the oppressor is guilty only for her own negligence, the end is bound to reward that simple will of action, that commitment, with the sleep of the just. And with that in mind one checks the clock, hoping that might hold for some kind of surprise that the movie is likely unable to provide.
Yet, below the lowest of the lows, there is still hell.
Once the girl has been identified, Jenny can finally resume her work with the knowledge that she’s done what she could (albeit too late), and managed to even charm the law to be on her side. It is then that the Dardenne brothers offer one of the most despicable demonstrations of cinematic abjection: the proverbial doorbell rings one more time, and now it is the sister of the victim – whom Jenny had met in her process of investigation, and who’d said she’d never seen the lady in the picture before. The woman confesses her regret for having neglected her own sister and says she’s come to thank the doctor for her kindness, for having taught her something about her own self, for enlightening her about the most fundamental blood ties that the barbarian daily reality made her forget, and the fear of her own origins had made her shut down.
There, hiding behind the suspicious metaphor of gratefulness, the victim begs her own perpetrator for forgiveness, because the perpetrator’s only sin was her distraction, and the religious journey has already taken care of pardoning that. There, before a mirror that tries to pass as a window, lays a possibility of identification, yet, unlike the intern, Jenny doesn’t ever have to learn about relating to someone else… she, herself, is the very model of inspiration.
Expiation doesn’t come without nausea: is this the brilliant conclusion to this allegory of contemporary Europe? – the same Europe suffering with terrorist acts by its own citizens, with a huge refugees crisis at its door, which has never made up for or even faced its colonialist past… the Europe of Brexit, of ECB, of neo-Nazis, and also the Europe that was cradle to Western art and civilization. Is this what the ultramodern Christianity embodied by the heavy conscience of the brothers’ cinema has to offer?
Here are the terms of the exchange: I’ll give you the left-wing humanistic tradition, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Revolutions, the Modernist paradigms, the heritage of the Classical, Christianity and the little compassion I still have left, if you give me the right to reward myself with a sugar cube and a pat in the back, in case I choke. Cinema, with all its history of abjections, of looking straight on at its own asshole, might have gone this low before… but not for so little.
At the end of this sad comedy of errors – gallows made out of a cat’s cradle – Jenny will go back to being Jenny, with the redemptive relief of every coming of age story. The girl at the other side of the screen shall remain unknown, because the girl never really mattered. She deserves more than the lightness of the earth; she deserves more than a scribble in a blank tombstone: the unknown will always have the right to only sleep with their eyes open.
In the extraordinary book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag deeply questions the efficiency and perversion in the gesture of portraying and publicizing someone else’s pain in the context of photojournalism. “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists”, she wrote.
Between then and now, the omnipresence of images of foreign pain has only increased and the protocol in dealing with this mode of register seems strongly settled in its efficiency in simultaneously inspiring compassion and inaction: an impression of proximity is mediated by the image, by something which is not alive and present; at the same time, such displacement earns the observer a coldness and an apparent legitimacy in wanting to see and show death and pain “as they are”, with the added bonus of a relatability that is only virtual. With this double blow, pain is both literalized and depersonalized and becomes the ideal and exemplary image of all Pain, adding another layer of violence to its specific context.
The act of capturing and exposing the explicit pain of the other is a way to satisfy a craving for shock (fruit of both nature and culture) and at the same time separate one’s self as different, distant from those who suffer. “The frankest representations of war, and of disaster-injured bodies are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known. With subjects closer to home, the photographer is expected to be more discreet”, she affirmed. But what is the possible posture when the pain of others literally knocks at your door, and yet doesn’t feel any less foreign, intact as the product of a distant off-screen space no more accessible in its specificity?
Fire at Sea, by Gianfranco Rosi, is a documentary about Lampedusa, a small island in Italy that has become an entry door to refugees arriving by boat to the continent. A sort of upside-down It’s the Earth Not the Moon (2011) with no less ambition to be a totalizing metaphor of Europe, the film invests in the rigorous observation (including in a pictorial sense) of the everyday experience, without denying the implications of that decision: an Italian film, by a director who is clearly observing and speaking from a very specific vantage point and who sees himself before a monumental dilemma that doesn’t neutralize – I’d say that it actually heightens – this inexorable condition of being who he is.
Starting with its title, the path chosen here seems to be that of embracing this contradiction and forwarding it to the viewer. In one field, there’s the comfort of a common language, the feelgood that emanates from observing the children and the customs in an “authentic Italy”, going as far as generating the confidence that all this proximity will allow him to find a charismatic protagonist – the boy Samuele, one of those characters almost any film would like to have – capable of individualizing a relationship with the spectator. In the reverse field, there are the bodies, alive or dead, that arrive from the sea, coming from the most varied countries, confined to inaccessible languages, without a defined destination or identification. This routine is contemplated by a distanced gaze, which then extends the ethical judgment (but not the position) to the other side of the screen: meta-observational cinema.
This extension of responsibility isn’t necessarily equal, since it is heavily mediated by an editing which naturally chooses and guides the connection the viewer can have with the material. But if Fire at Sea is a movie about inequality, to judge such procedures with the superiority of distance is to close oneself to a radical experience of otherness. From the very beginning – the cut from the titles contextualizing the choice of location via refugees to the shot of Samuele climbing a tree – the movie refuses a journalistic demagogy that ambitions showing “both sides” of the question. As a matter of fact, this question is not even one that has two sides. The concerns here are with an issue that implies and conditions different positions, and how they are present or absent in the lives of those involved.
The movie is aware that it is the product of one of those positions – in this case, one of multiple privileges – and it creates an internal tension between an “objective” distance and a markedly subjective selection of what it shows. Even though Gianfranco Rosi works mostly by himself, he never goes as far as inhabiting the film – like Eduardo Coutinho or Ross McElwee – but also never hides the presence of this middle man in what he films, how he films, when he films and how all of that is presented to the viewer. From the conversations with the local doctor, who speaks to someone off screen, to the clear determination of the plastic composition of the shots, one can always feel the shadow coming from behind the camera. That makes Fire at Sea an extremely complicated experience – for the director, for the characters, for the viewer – yet, when dealing with a situation this complex, complicating it might really be the only way to do it.
With the cards facing up, laid out at the table, the question then becomes a different one: how can the complexity of this pain be honored when the contact with similar images has already anesthetized the sensibility of anyone who could possibly watch this film? “Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus,” wrote Sontag. Even though the situation in question isn’t literally a war, the choice of turning it into images isn’t that distinct: the mediatic exemplification (a logic that’s reproduced on social media) that individualizes and viralizes (the saddest of all verbs) the dead Syrian boy on the shore in a photograph is the same that generalizes third-world immigration and silences contradictions that are inherent to a colonial process that’s never really stopped – let alone been remedied. The violence of this process is alluded to from the aforementioned opening: Samuele climbs a tree to find a branch he can use to make a slingshot, using a knife to trim out the thorns. For a good portion of the film, the boy will practice his skills and release his testosterone-driven impulses until he can finally hunt – with no apparent goal – the birds that cross his path.
However, a bird is not merely a bird, and to film an other is always to film the Other – a pendular relationship which is profoundly unequal and that, when simplified as militancy, results in the disgusting end of The Unknown Girl: an other who’s of interest only so far as it reports back to me. If on the one hand the space and the voice and even the existence of the immigrants in Fire at Sea is severely limited, specified and deindividualized by the movie, on the other it does little to protect the Italians from their own privilege and from a sense of violence that is intrinsic to their existence – condensed, for example, in the destructive drive implicit in the boy’s daily life.
About 30 minutes into the film, a woman with her head covered by a veil is photographed next to a numbered sign, in a customs protocol. She resists pulling her veil back, if only slightly, to show a bit of her hair to the strangers who ask her to do so – a gesture of violence that, for both sides, seems to only exist because of a failed process of translation, but that nonetheless only oppresses one of the two sides involved. Inequality seems all the more cruel when it is treated as a predictable and understandable part of a social system that’s never neutral, despite having the appearance of rational, scientific neutrality. To honor that, Fire at Sea must dodge (and not always successfully) both the militant’s language and the pornographic desire for social Exploitation, and discreetly focus on something seemingly neutral, objective, but which triggers these same contradictions: the social dispositifs.
Although that’s never openly announced, or put together using approximation to highlight the comparison – a smart editing choice that avoids illustrative vulgarity –, the film is assembled to work as a collection of echoes that, once organized by the viewer, heighten the different treatment received by the ones who are close and the others coming from afar. The sonars at the sea monitoring stations evoke the ultrasound machine that confirms a pregnancy; the reading about Christopher Columbus in an English class connects Samuele’s life to the process of colonization that brings other unknown men to this other coast (and points out different yearnings for the “outside”); the radio serves as a tool to unite the residents of the island as well as a desperate resource for a ship lost in the ocean; the boats that provide a living for the local fishermen also represent a chance of survival for the ones escaping their own countries; the boy’s eye test contrasts with the invasive inspection that the immigrants go through when they arrive on the island – “They smell like diesel”, the officers say, and the comment speaks as much about the poor conditions they traveled in as it does about the ones making the remark.
By focusing on the apparent neutrality of such processes, the difference in their biopolitical application is accentuated. Those very same dispositifs – whether social or technological – carry big variations in their use, depending on who’s on the receiving end: we’re not all in the same boat, and to say that we are would be deeply unfair to those who were kept from embarking.
This attention which demonstrates – more than articulates – an abyss in cinematic form underscores the separation between “me” and the “other”, keeping both the good will and the perversity of the interval intact: these are the possible terms of this relationship. Cinema is used as a tool to express a certain apprehension of reality, at the same time that it acknowledges its inability to transcend it – or, like the doctor in the film, at least accepts the limits of its gesture. Compassion, here, can only be expressed through absence, and the film recognizes its inability to repair the void it denounces.
The science fiction treatment applied to the monitoring station and to the successive encounters with the unidentified boats that are rescued is clashed with the tranquil fictional sound continuity that makes peace with and adheres to the point of view of Samuele – there is a scene in which his family eats pasta that wouldn’t be out of place in most comedies, with the difference that here it coexists with the famine-slender bodies of the men, women and children who headed to sea with hope for some kind of change. The rather indistinct, animalistic way that Rosi shoots the refugees makes it clear that, in that pile of unnamed bodies and faces (a criticism that Sontag applied to the work of Sebastião Salgado, which fits right in here), no protagonism is possible – at least for this film. Fire at Sea looks at the borders of the present more frequently than to the possibility of overcoming them in the future; it observes more than it proposes.
There’s a limit to this choice, but also a relative fairness, because Rosi doesn’t try to cover or hide this partiality; much on the contrary, it makes it a theme, a principle. Throughout the film, Samuele realizes he can’t shoot stones as well as he hoped. After an eye check, he finds out he has a lazy eye and spends a good portion of the film wearing a patch, accentuating the awareness of a certain defeat (or indignity) of the movie’s own near-sightedness, which to some extent takes him as its spokesperson. To look with the other eye, the one that isn’t used to seeing, is a painful process that takes persistence, patience and effort, but that’s also extremely necessary. Fire at Sea suggests this exercise, facing its complications as a principle, so that hopefully they will not remain standing at the end.
It’s a complicated desire, perhaps doomed to fail even, because it can only be effective outside the film. However, that doesn’t make it any less revealing. The line of refugees keeps moving and the numbers they are given take this impersonality further and further, as the photographic camera freezes all those faces that arrive and move along, with no clear origin, destination or clarity of their next step, their next line. Is is then that a young man enters that improvised set and, instead of looking at the photo camera, stares straight at Giafranco Rosi’s camera, right next to it. It is the key moment in the film, not only because it levels the enunciation of the film with the official procedures of the customs employees, but also for everything that face manages to return, in its Bartleby-like sphingian dignity, to whoever looks at him, underlining something quite fundamental: every otherness is a two-way street, it is both window and mirror, it is everything we’ve managed to be as well as everything we could never, ever be.