Little Baby Jesus of Flandr -- Film Review



CANNES -- There's already a buzz stirring in the Directors' Fortnight for the highly auteur "Little Baby Jesus of Flandr," by 24-year-old newcomer Gust Van den Berghe. Originally begun as a student film, the Flemish director's low-budget roots are apparent from the crooked, handwritten opening credits themselves.

"Little Baby Jesus" seems a tribute to the kind of work on which the Cannes sidebar made its name and will definitely divide viewers. A cast made up almost entirely of actors with Down Syndrome, a Latina devil, a singing transvestite and a black midget musician are just some of the elements critics and cineastes can lap up in the film. Commercial audiences are non-existent.

Filmed in black and white and based on a traditional Flemish work by Felix Timmermans, the elegiac film is divided into three chapters: First, Second and Third Christmas. Just before the first of these holidays, three drunken beggars go caroling to earn some money and in the woods come across what one, Suskewiet (Jelle Palmaerts), is convinced is the birth of the baby Jesus. In the touching scene, the beggars leave the poor but happy family the only gifts/possession they have: scraps of food, money and "for when the kid grows up," some cigarettes.

As Suskewiet grows increasingly obsessed with religion, his friends Schrobberbeeck (Peter Janssens) and Pitje Vogel (Paul Mertens) take him for mad and leave him to his fate. However, they too split ways and shortly thereafter Pitje Vogel, tired of being destitute, sells his soul to the devil (Georgina Del Carmen Teunissen) in exchange for material wealth.

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"Little Baby Jesus" opens with a voiceover proclaiming the immensity of faith -- in man, nature and even faith itself -- but offers no real new insight into our eternal quest for the divine or the Three Wise Men. In fact, the only discernible message in this exercise in style seems to be that God is pretty good and the devil bad.

With his laudable casting choice, Van den Berghe gives these Down's actors something other to play than token handicapped characters. And his film a more original and tender tone than the overly constructed, underlying material would allow.

The great music -- an eclectic mix of operatic electronica, traditional religious hymns and circus-esque accordion tunes a la Tom Waits -- lends some oomph to many of the bleak scenes.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fortnight
Sales: Minds Meet
Production company: Minds Meet
Cast: Paul Mertens, Jelle Palmaerts, Peter Janssens, Marc Wagemans, Gitte Wens, Jan Goris, Georgina Del Carmen Teunissen, Luc Loots
Director: Gust Van den Berghe
Screenwriter: Gust Van den Berghe
Producer: Tomas Leyers
Director of photography: Hans Bruch Jr.
Production designer: Jorgen Hopmans
Music: Va Fan Fahre
Costume designers: Mellisa Fellahi, Liesbeth de Smet
Editor: David Verdurme
No rating, 76 minutes