ROSETTA (1999, Belgium)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast: Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90%

PLOT: A poor young woman, teetering on the edge of desperation, struggles to support herself and her alcoholic mother.

The word “neo-realist” is used several times in other reviews or movie blogs where this little Belgian film is discussed. I’m not a film scholar, so I can’t claim to know precisely what that term describes. Without searching for the dictionary definition, I think it refers to a film in which the predominant theme or tone is that of real life, happening to real people. A favorite method of creating this tone is to use non-professional actors in all the key roles, so one never gets a sense of acting from a performance, only reality.

If I got that right, then Rosetta is definitely a neo-realist film, and I typically do not like neo-realist films. I have seen Bicycle Thieves (1948) a couple of times, and while I acknowledge its place in cinema history and its craftsmanship, the appeal of the film (commonly called a masterpiece of Italian neo-realism) eludes me. It’s not my favorite genre and/or time period.

But Rosetta undercut my preconceived notions of the genre and had me riveted from its opening moments to its severely unconventional ending, ninety short minutes later.

The determining factor is the camerawork, at least at first. We immediately follow this young girl, Rosetta (a gutsy, award-winning performance by Émilie Dequenne), maybe 16 or 17 years old, who is walking briskly through a factory floor, though we’re not sure why at first. As she walks, the camera follows her, hand-held, unsteady, very queasy-cam, but it lends a sense of immediacy to the shot. The camera is almost running just to keep up with Rosetta, and I was instantly curious. Where is she going? Why is she walking so fast? Is she about to punch someone out?

But no, she’s about to be fired for being late, and when her boss intercepts her, she refuses to go quietly, to a point where security has to be called and chases her through the entire building. Why so desperate? Aren’t there other jobs to be had for someone her age out there?

Apparently not. This will be a theme throughout the film: her constant hustle to get a paying job. At one point, someone offers to hire her and pay her under the table, but she refuses: “I want a real job.”

Wherever she goes, the handheld camera follows right behind her, like a paparazzo who won’t give up. We only get a handful of long shots, like when she crosses a busy street after getting off a bus. Virtually every other shot is right behind her or right next to her. The effect creates the idea that Rosetta’s life is composed mostly of sleep and hustling to make that next dollar, or franc. In between, she maintains her trailer home with her alcoholic mother, a woman who is so pitifully down the road of addiction that she demeans herself with the landlord of their trailer park to pay for their water, just so she can keep the money to pay for more liquor. Rosetta ruthlessly tries to keep her mother in check, constantly berating her for her behavior, their familial positions clearly reversed.

Rosetta is not a happy film. How can it be? It simply follows this girl’s life from one crisis to another. But I was totally engrossed in a way that reminded me, for some reason, of another movie, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, which was also shot and filmed in such a way that the actors (most of them recognizable and famous) didn’t feel like actors, and as such felt more real than many other films.

So…what is the takeaway from this movie? Is Rosetta a good person? She has noble intentions, I believe, but she is forced to be strong and calculating as a way of keeping her and her mother afloat. At one point, she meets a young man, might even like him, but at one point, on the shore of a small lake, he falls in and appears to be drowning…and Rosetta takes an awfully long time to decide whether to help him or not. After all, if he dies…she might be able to take his place at work.

I just watched a video essay on Netflix about how it’s not always necessary for you to like a character in a movie in order for it to be enjoyable. Overall, I’d agree with that assessment, especially with Rosetta (though What About Bob? is the CLEAR exception). This film was both dazzling and simple, a neat trick, involving a character I didn’t always agree with, but who I believed made the only choices she could make in her situation. I found myself asking what I would do in her place. Left to fend for myself with no steady job and an alcoholic parent, how would I fare in this world? How would you? Rosetta answers that question in a way that makes sense for the lead character. Her answers may differ from yours. Discuss.

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