Character


             Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects
     the nominees for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar from official
     selections submitted by countries around the world. Often, the films are
     not the most popular with audiences or critics. This year, the box-office
     hit
SHALL WE DANCE? was deemed ineligible because it aired on
     television in its native Japan and the critically-acclaimed (albeit slightly
     flawed) Belgian picture
MA VIE EN ROSE (MY LIFE IN PINK) was simply
     overlooked. Among the five films that did make the cut this year is the
     Dutch
CHARACTER/KARAKTER.

             A first feature from 39-year old screenwriter-director Mike van Diem,
     
CHARACTER is a strong historical drama that examines familial bonds
     and raises issues about how one's destiny is shaped. Based on a
     popular Dutch novel that was published in the 1930s,
CHARACTER is a
     well-crafted period piece. Van Diem has taken liberties with the original
     source material but still managed to create vivid characters and a
     fascinating and compelling story.

             The film opens with a confrontation between two men, a brash
     youth and a powerful oldster. It is only when the youth is questioned
     by police that the nature of their relationship and the events leading
     to the confrontation become clear. Told in flashback, the film's structure
     is similar to Raul Ruiz's recent
GENEALOGIES OF A CRIME, but
     
CHARACTER is the superior film.

             Audiences need to pay close attention to this densely plotted
     story. The youth, Katadreuffe, is illegitimate and the older man he was
     confronting was his father, Dreverhaven, the town's powerful and hated
     bailiff. His mother, Joba, has to rank as one of the oddest parents
     ever depicted onscreen. She was Dreverhaven's maid who succumbed to
     his advances once, gets pregnant, refuses his marriage proposal and
     raises her son with indifference. Watching her persona unfold on screen
     reminded me of another disdainful parent, Charles Ryder's father in
     Evelyn Waugh's
"BRIDESHEAD REVISITED" (incarnated by John
     Gielgud in the TV adaptation). As Katadreuffe ages, his fate is seemingly
     entwined with his father; a loan he obtains for a business is from
     Dreverhaven's bank, he becomes a clerk at a law office that has
     dealings with the bailiff, etc. Along the way, Katadreuffe makes a
     similar mistake with a woman who falls in love with him and comes
     to realize the full effect of the influence and feelings of his father.

             Van Diem avoids most of the pitfalls of novice filmmakers.
       CHARACTER is meticulously designed and well-acted. Jan Decleir,
     a well-known Flemish actor who may be recalled for his turn in
     
ANTONIA'S LINE, makes Dreverhaven a believably feared and
     overpowering figure. He uses his solid heft to create a man who
     clearly enjoys the perks of his position to the point of sadism. Yet,
     van Diem includes a dream sequence wherein the audience sees
     his concern that his power of the lower classes only resides in their
     fear of his office and not of him. Much has been made about the
     resemblance of actor Fedja van Huest (who plays Katadreuffe) and
     American actor Robert Downey Jr, but is more Downey's interpretation
     of Charlie Chaplin that is recalled rather than Downey's screen presence.
     
             Certainly van Huest has a similar build and coloring, but he is also
     his own man. A newcomer to films, the young actor anchors the movie
     by deftly delineating a haunted but ambitious figure. Whether or not the
     film wins an Academy Award,
CHARACTER announces the debut of a
     gifted storyteller.



                                     Rating:        B+
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.