Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make films that defy criticism. Their work tends to be incredibly "small," often chronicling the cultural struggles and emotional torture endured by working class citizens of small European towns. What elevates their work from maudlin celebrations of suffering into something else, something blissful, sometimes even transcendent, is their deft hand separating that which is specific from that which is universal. Their films, in spite of their humble appearances, become grand, arching fables. And perhaps none are as moving as "Rosetta".
In many ways a companion piece to the masterful film they released this year, "The Kid With a Bike," "Rosetta" follows the titular character - a teenaged Belgian girl - as her intense struggle to hold onto her job elevates into an intense struggle to retain control of her very identity. Many will place "Rosetta" among the neo-realist works of the 1950s, films like "Bicycle Thieves" that dramatized the plight of our poorest people. But the Dardennes’ work is singular, like Robert Bresson as filtered through master documentarians, and "Rosetta" achieves emotional heights far more profound than mere misery and elevated sadness. To watch Rosetta pounding through her neighborhood, unleashing upon co-workers, and slumping into defeat isn’t just a maudlin experience; it’s a transcendent one. You can always trust the Dardennes to find the beauty in even their ugliest films.
Criterion hasn’t exactly packed "Rosetta" full of surplus features, but a couple interview features do more than enough to shed light on the Dardenne’s easy-to-explain but nearly impossible-to-recreate handheld aesthetic. The video transfer is impeccable, and a new subtitle translation leaves the film feeling raw and human where dialogue previously read as cold and unemotional. Most films go in one ear and out the other. "Rosetta" cuts straight to your heart.