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Weekly Alibi Character Counts?

By Angie Drobnic

MAY 18, 1998:  What were they thinking? The members of the Academy of Motion Pictures voted the Dutch film Character 1998's Best Foreign Film, and they certainly picked a well-crafted film. But its subject matter plays to stereotypical notions Americans have about how family dynamics work, or in some cases, don't work. It's hard to believe American audiences can put notions of the "dysfunctional family" out of their minds when they watch Character, a film that undoubtedly was not made as a paean to the inner child.

Based on a 1938 Dutch novel, Character opens with a young man attacking an older rival in a fury. The younger man, named Katadreuffe, is taken into custody by the police, where he maintains his innocence but must explain his connection to the now dead man, Dreverhaven. The story spins back to Katadreuffe's childhood: His mother, Joba, had the young boy out of wedlock, and Dreverhaven was the father. As Katadreuffe grows up, the audience is shown his increasing alienation from his stoically quiet mother, his persistent desire to educate himself and Dreverhaven's seemingly endless quest to throw obstacles in his son's way. Is it any wonder that the son could one day snap and kill the man who has inflicted so much pain on him?

But this is where our own American cultural biases come into play. To read the movie as a portrait of family dysfunction is so tempting: The ostracized mother can't provide her son with a loving home; the son has no positive role model to which to aspire, and the selfish father refuses to care for and protect his own child. The result? Heartbreak for all. But that's clearly a ridiculous reading of this movie. With its historical setting in 1920s Rotterdam, it simply doesn't work. The title is the first clue that maybe we shouldn't be looking at this through our modern eyes. Character, afterall, can mean temperament, personality or integrity. While not explicit, the film makes connections between the different outlooks of Katadreuffe, Dreverhaven and Joba as inherited, or fate, if you will.

For instance, Dreverhaven's job is as a court bailiff, a combination loan shark/repo man/Sheriff of Nottingham-type who evicts the poor and the sickly from their homes and takes property from the bankrupt. The law, as he says, is on his side, but he performs his duties with such inexplicable zeal that even he has nightmares of the revenge the downtrodden may one day take upon him. Katadreuffe has also been drawn to the world of law--he wants to become an attorney, though he is told that his poor background almost assures his failure. Nevertheless, his own obsession helps him succeed, despite the obstacles his father seems to set up in his path. An inescapable possibility the film posits is that Dreverhaven is purposefully plaguing his own son in an attempt to make the son as strong as the father. The intricacies of "nature vs. nurture" are all mixed up in a story that was created before the phrase even came into being.

But to get away from thematics, Character is also a visual stunner. It captures the old streets of Rotterdam beautifully in grays and blacks, but when Katadreuffe enters the world of law for the first time, the screen becomes bathed in light. The law offices in which he is employed are captured in rich cocoa browns. The movie truly creates its own gloomy world, in a strange way that reminded me of the brilliant recent release Dark City. And the oft-neglected workhorse of film, the soundtrack, deserves special praise in Character. The music perfectly aids the mood of the film as it tracks the life of a troubled young man. Small beautiful moments are captured on screen as well, strange things like the letters that pass between Dreverhaven and Joba 13 times or the flooding of a tobacco shop, that viewers should best see for themselves.

The acting is all first rate from the Dutch cast. The three leads--Fedja Van Huet (Katadreuffe), Jan Decleir (Dreverhaven) and Betty Schuurman (Joba)--are truly amazing. Particularly good among the supporting cast is Victor Löw as Katadreuffe's attorney and mentor De Gankelaar. The character brings a bit of comedic relief to a dark story, but he also provides one of the most moving moments of the film when he must confront Katadreuffe about the limits of obsession.

The movie progresses to its unpredictable conclusion with the same methodical compunction as the characters it shows. One might expect a tragic end to such a film, but it does not portray desolation and destruction at its end for its own sake. Instead, the story offers an intriguing conclusion that settles no questions, leaving viewers with a meditation on the way children eventually grow up to be both like and unlike their parents.


Directed by Mike van Diem. Screenplay by Mike van Diem, Laurens Geels and Ruud van Megen.

Starring Fedja Van Huet, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman, Victor Löw, Tamar van den Dop and Hans Kesting.

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