Although they seldom show a church or have a character call on Jesus, the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are the worker-priests of European art cinema. Twice presented the Palm d’or at Cannes (for “Rosetta” in 1999 and “L’enfant” in 2005), the Belgian duo have perfected a sort of spiritually-infused social realism. Their movies are Robert Bresson reimagined as cinema verité — hectic, rough-hewn tales of sin, grace, and redemption typically centered on a single, problematic character (or relationship) and mainly set in their nondescript hometown, the small industrial city of Seraing.
The Dardennes have a style and set of interests as instantly recognizable as any filmmaker in the world and, although they are not what you’d call natural comedians, it is fun to imagine a gathering in which their protagonists might meet. How would the quick-thinking urchin and his harried slob of a father in “La Promesse” connect with the desperate, feral yet innocent teenage survivor, Rosetta? What could the bereft dad in “The Son” tell the feckless, baby-selling anti-hero of “L’enfant”? The heroine of the Dardennes’ last movie, “Lorna’s Silence,” was admittedly kind of a stiff, but the eponymous subject of “The Kid with a Bike,” opening Friday, is one of their greatest creations. Just try to get him to sit still.
Implacable, resourceful, and fiercely unlovable, 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is pure drive, a child with the reflexes of a trapped animal. This pinch-faced throwaway kid, inevitably nicknamed “Pitbull,” is first shown biting, clawing, climbing, running, and dodging his way out of the juvenile home where he has been deposited — a brief moment of freedom marked by a blast of solemn Bressonian music.
Cyril is something like an escape machine, programmed to find the father who abandoned him. (That his old man is played by Dardenne axiom, Jérémie Renier, the son in “La Promesse” and the father in “L’enfant,” offers a bit of cross-reference.) Cornered in a clinic waiting room, Cyril instinctively clings to Samantha (Cécile de France) a 30-something hairdresser who simply happens to be sitting there. If he were bigger, he might have been taking her hostage but, surprisingly, she only asks that he not hug her so hard. In the world of the Dardennes, emotions, ideas, and moral crises are visceral; that panicky embrace was a connection. Samantha, who lives alone above her modest salon, felt something.
Still hoping to find his father, Cyril pleads to stay with Samantha on weekends and, granted his request, enlists her in his quest. As filmmakers, the Dardennes treat this gritty, stripped-down parable as only they can. The camera sticks close as Cyril hurtles through space on his bicycle. The movie has tremendous forward motion; it’s as single-minded as its protagonist, who repeatedly flings himself against the wall of his father’s indifference. The lesson taught over and over in cine Dardenne is that the possibility of redemption arises from the assuming of responsibility for another person. (Midway through “The Kid with a Bike,” another surrogate parent appears in the form of a youth gang leader — he is clearly the devil, yet even he has an infirm grandmother whom he looks after.)
“The Kid with a Bike” is founded on the paradox of Samantha’s apparent self-sufficiency and Cyril’s overwhelming neediness. The boy is a hard, perhaps hopeless, case; if his salvation seems miraculous, that is precisely the Dardennes’ point. Samantha may appear to be a neo-realist angel but she is also following the goodness of her heart. Such near-unconditional love is what one might reasonably expect from any parent — in the best of all possible worlds.