The Son makes inordinate demands on the viewer. The movie fixates on the nape of the star Olivier Gourmet's neck, minutely records extended work sessions in a carpentry shop, and dispenses with music. The first 20 minutes or so ask us to consider, without elucidation, the mysterious agitation of Olivier (played by Gourmet), while the ending raises as many questions as it resolves. Still, this latest film from the auteurs of the brilliant La Promesse amply rewards those willing to embrace its austerity.

Olivier teaches carpentry in a rehab center for juvenile delinquents. As few other filmmakers, brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne dwell on and sanctify the workplace, the blue overalls an implicit reproach to the Armanis of corporate chieftains. When the director asks him to accept Francis (Morgane Marinne), a new teen, as a woodworking apprentice, Olivier freaks--but then surreptitiously observes the boy in the hallways and streets, and even tails him to his apartment. It becomes clear the boy shattered Olivier's life in some way five years back. When Olivier finally takes Francis on, the two are forced to confront the demons that bind them.

At this point, the film kicks into higher gear and we're hooked. Staying with the story up to this moment, though, is something of an endurance test--you end up knowing more about the back of Olivier's head than the back of your own hand. In fact, the Dardennes have maintained, 'We could not imagine the film based on another body, another actor.' The performance of Gourmet, who took the Best Actor award at Cannes, is remarkable for its complete absense of, well, acting. Marinne (a knockoff of blond Jeremie Regnier of La Promesse) delivers a pure turn in the same mold.

The film's strengths, as well as drawbacks, lie in the almost punishing restraint of its style. The most dramatic plot point is delivered almost matter-of-factly, without buildup or emphasis. The Dardennes are concerned with the themes of loss and violence, the ties between fathers and sons, and redemption and forgiveness. The Son is haunted by the question: Can Olivier forgive Francis for the unforgivable? Organic to the plot and never forced, Christian imagery abounds, down to woodworkers bearing beams like crosses. The finale's wrestling match to the death between Olivier and Francis takes on mythical dimensions, like a combat between universal forces. The Dardennes are peerless in their ability to deliver such powerful scenes, but overall, the film is too interior to reach beyond art-house converts.

-Erica Abeel