'The Benefit of the Doubt' ('Une part d’ombre'): Film Review

Destiny Films
A suspenseful account of guilt and its repercussions.

Belgian writer-director Samuel Tilman’s feature debut stars Fabrizio Rongione ('Two Days, One Night') as a man accused of murder.

In Belgian writer-director Samuel Tilman’s compelling feature debut, a seemingly innocent man finds his life upended when he’s accused of committing murder. It’s a plot we’ve seen a few billion times before, most memorably in classics by Fritz Lang (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Wrong Man, I Confess) where being blamed for a crime can be just as bad as having done the deed itself.

Indeed, The Benefit of the Doubt (Une part d’ombre) tips its hat to those masters both in terms of its (rather generic) title, as well as in a scenario that focuses on the ripple effects that guilt — or at least the suspicion of guilt — can have on the accused, their friends and family. Carried by Dardenne brothers regular Fabrizio Rongione’s unsettling performance, this small but effective suspenser was nominated for several Magritte Awards (Belgium’s version of the Oscars) and won a prize at the Beaune International Thriller Festival. It deserves a look outside of Francophonia.

An eerie opening sequence shows affable high school teacher David (Rongione) and his band of buddies hanging out at a lakeside cabin. While the others stay home, David goes for a routine jog at dusk. By the time he returns, a woman has been killed along the road, and, with no other major suspects around, David is pinned as the culprit.

Initially, it’s hard for both the viewer and David’s entourage, including his loving partner, Julie (Natacha Regnier), to fathom that he could be guilty. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to commit murder, and with no real motive we can’t see why he would. Plus, during his jog David ran into a mysterious drifter who has since vanished into a thin air, and who seems like a much more viable suspect. The victim, meanwhile, was a jeweler who was driving around with a stack of cash in her vehicle.

But looks, of course, can be deceiving, and the script (written by Tilman in collaboration with Olivier Demangel) gradually reveals a different, darker side to David, especially when we learn about an affair he was having with a young woman in Poland. That information drives a major wedge between David and his loved ones: They begin to look at him differently, to question his every action. One mother doesn’t want her kids to sleep over at David’s house anymore. Could he have done it?

Benefit of the Doubt is most interested in how David’s presumed guilt affects his otherwise calm, well-meaning existence — how it instills a disquieting ambiance that becomes increasingly unbearable as suspicions around him mount. Many scenes involve uncomfortable dinner parties or other such gatherings where David is clearly the black sheep of his group, yet still manages to be accepted by a few of them — especially Noel (singer Baptiste Lalieu), who decides to help him solve the case.

As more facts about the murder become clear, with Tilman constantly cutting back to the original crime to give us additional details, we’re left, like most of David’s friends, thinking he maybe could have done it. The film’s suspenseful final act, which involves a brief trial where David’s lawyer (Chrisophe Paou) does his best to save his client’s skin, provides a resolution that disproves certain suppositions while confirming others.

Rongione, who was memorable as Marion Cotillard’s helpless other half in the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, unnervingly plays an everyday guy who, as is usually the case with Hitchcockian heroes, is in over his head and desperately tries to find justice. But the actor’s disquieting turn also shows that David is far from perfect, and the question of whether he is, in fact, the wrong man or the right one lingers until the very end of the pic, to the point that it nearly destroys him and all of those he loves. As Kafka once wrote: “Guilt is never to be doubted.”  

Production companies: Eklektik Productions, Good Fortune Films, Point Prod, Urban Factory, Serendipity
Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Natacha Regnier, Baptiste Lalieu, Myriem Akheddiou, Christophe Paou
Director: Samuel Tilman
Screenwriter: Samuel Tilman, in collaboration with Olivier Demangel
Producers: Marie Besson, Clement Duboin, Jean-Marc Frohle, Frederic Corvez, Ellen de Waele
Director of photography: Frederic Noirhomme
Production designer: Catherine Cosme
Costume designer: Catherine Cosme
Editor: Thijs Van Nuffel
Composer: Vincent Liben
Sales: Be for Films

In French
94 minutes