While at first glance, its title may suggest a postmodern exercise (akin to calling a movie Plot), Character is actually concerned with very different meanings of the word.
Does the essential character of an individual stem from a distinctive quality, nature or attribute? Can character be built by rigid self-discipline and fortitude? Should character derive from good social standing and reputation? And what constitutes the character, the collective moral constitution, of an entire nation?
Character (this Dutch entry recently won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) unfolds like a good, old-fashioned novel by focusing on the bitter dynamics of a contentious father-son relationship.
Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir) is a feared figure in Rotterdam at the turn of the century. He's a court bailiff and his expertise is evictions, which he carries out to the letter of the law without demonstrating anything resembling compassion. A near-silent, forceful man, Dreverhaven meets his match in Joba (Betty Schuurman), his housekeeper, who finds herself pregnant after their sexual encounter. Whether it was consensual becomes beside the point: The remainder of their lives turns into a struggle of wills.
Joba decides she needs nothing from Dreverhaven and passes this philosophy to her son Jacob Willem Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet), who inherits her last name if not her sullen temperament. But as much as he struggles to find his own way, eventually becoming a lawyer, Jacob's destiny is to be haunted by the hulking figure of his father.
Writer-director Mike van Diem, who adapted Ferdinand Bordewijk's 1938 novel, has made Character in an effortless, straightforward style that recalls old Hollywood storytelling at its most rewarding. The film unfolds seamlessly from a highly charged but cryptic encounter between the enraged son and his stoic, authoritative father, to a police interrogation in which a bloodied Jacob recounts his lifelong passive-aggressive battle with Dreverhaven.
In Character, Mike van Diem utilizes oddly comic figures, dissects the economic forces behind 1920s Dutch society and refuses to make Dreverhaven into a cardboard-cutout villain, all in a way that might make Charles Dickens proud.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.