Writer/director Felix Van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown stars Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens as, respectively, bluegrass picker Didier and tattoo artist Elise, two Belgians who meet, fall passionately in love, marry, and encounter and must weather extreme tragedy. He's a staunch atheist, she's a committed Christian. Their beliefs -- and polarized responses to potential calamity -- clash head-to-head when their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) develops bone cancer and the window of hope begins to contract. The weeks during and immediately following this crisis give rise to rage, resentment, mutual recriminations, and extreme differences of opinion about the meaning of earthly life and the possibility of something beyond it. We witness fulminations against the idea of God in his case, and desperate grasps for renewed commitment to a higher power in hers.
Given the amount of the ridicule now being directed toward Christianity in European intellectual circles, it feels a bit shocking to find a contemporary drama that takes spirituality as seriously as earlier masterpieces on the same subject, such as Carl Dreyer's Ordet or Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. Like those prior motion pictures, Broken Circle is neither a plug for atheism/blanket condemnation of belief, nor an unflinching embrace of faith. Either one would make the film too pedantic, too black-and-white, and the writer/director understands this. What we get instead is, for the most part, a thoughtful, serious, intelligent movie about the tentative, often fluctuating relationships between uncontrollable earthbound calamities, personalized reactions to extreme loss, and individual convictions.
This is not easy thematic territory to mine for a plethora of reasons, including the near impossibility of visualizing spirituality itself onscreen. Handle it ineptly (as many, many other directors have) and the material can easily veer into absurdity or clichés. Van Groeningen succeeds because he keeps the script and his camera fixated on the characters' concrete responses to life's extremities, enabling us to maintain a constant awareness of the underlying (and contrasting) religious inclinations that guide Didier and Elise's responses. The movie does falter a little bit when it takes the ill-advised step of including a hallucinatory metaphysical episode at the end, though it only lasts a short time.
The picture also runs a great risk, given the extent to which it goes for broke emotionally. The building blocks of the story are the materials of extreme tragedy, and there is nothing quite as risible onscreen as unearned pathos. To Van Groeningen's credit, he avoids the Penny Serenade and Pay it Forward trap of setting up an initially happy story with a linear plot and whipping out disaster at the last minute in a ham-handed attempt to break our hearts. On a narrative level, Broken Circle skips around in time; as a result, we're able to prepare ourselves for grief and sorrow within the first five or ten minutes, and we feel less overtly manipulated than we would otherwise.
Admittedly, not every sequence works. There are a couple of instances in which the film crosses a line that it shouldn't. One involves Didier's vitriolic castigation of Christianity and praise of evolution -- which is a mistake not at all because of what he says (indeed, it seems completely in synch with the character), but because of the public forum where it occurs; it comes off as totally improbable. And the final scene includes a musical performance that feels woefully out of place -- and even laughable -- because of where it's set.
Those qualifications aside, however, most of the movie strikes one as wholly credible, anchored as it is by brilliant, lived-in performances by the two leads, Van Groeningen's keen eye for behavioral observation, and a consistent refusal to admonish or praise either of the central characters: This drama feels remarkably free of such assertions. At the film's center is a delicate, haunting mystery -- that of faith itself -- and the writer/director's instincts are far too wise and profound to either deflate it or cast any judgments on it. Instead, he stands back, contemplating it in wonder, and invites us to join him.