Disharmony at the heart of Belgium has turned into an unwelcome hot topic of late. Terrorist attacks and an increasing focus on cultural discord occupy headlines. Much of this shines through in Black, the breakout feature from Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, but their raw and frenetic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet on the streets of Brussels uses this as context to flesh out the world. The focus remains on two young lovers from opposing sides of the tracks, a recipe that rarely ends well.
Romeo is recast as Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), a teenager of Moroccan descent who first appears dashing through the streets after smashing a car window and making off with a woman’s bag. He hangs around with his older brother and a small collection of genial delinquents who spend their days in and out of the local police station for various petty crimes. The object of his affection is Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), a new recruit into street gang the Black Bronx. Her cousin brings her in and she seems content at first until high level drug connections, guns, and sexual violence begin to pose an increasingly palpable threat.
Threat is required for Romeo and Juliet. Their love has to be tested, pulled and stretched beyond reasonable limits. At first though it’s all fun. They meet in the police station, Marwan for his latest theft and Mavela for making off with a few bottles of alcohol. They call each other slut and bastard, discuss the double standards of interracial dating and just about manage to pass contact details on despite the impediment of handcuffs. It’s fast, cheeky and endearing.
Early scenes fly by in a similar vein, quick cuts swishing into quick cuts under the umbrella of a constant hip-hop soundtrack. There are parties, a bit of light Molotov hurling, and flirting on subway stations and in fast food restaurants. It’s all smooth and easy to watch, helped by Bensaihi and Antonio who bring chemistry and energy in equal parts. Even though they’re clear standouts, it’s remarkably good casting all around, everyone fitting the parts they’re handed from gang members to embattled parents and dogged police officers.
Into this El Arbi and Fallah mix elements of social realism. Marwan and his friends, calling themselves the 1080s, may scrap with the Black Bronx, but they’re united in hatred for the Flemish Belgian society that will never accept them. Even traditional routes of escape are non-starters. Mavela dismisses education as a dead end. Her mother possesses a medical degree yet remains unemployed. She laughs at her for thinking learning Flemish will grant that elusive job. Marwan holds higher hopes only for others to dash them. When he expresses desire to live life on the straight and narrow his brother is clear that he may come from Brussels but he’ll never be one of them
This disconnection forces them away from the mainstream and onto a dark path. The 1080s remain light-fingered troublemakers but Mavela soon finds herself sinking into a pit she sees coming and still can’t avoid. It’s much worse for her. Being with Marwan becomes an impossibility, one that leads to savage and incredibly brutal violence in an empty Church. Leaving him gives her little respite either. Marwan’s problems, hardly insubstantial, don’t compare.
Black is not without flaws, sometimes rushing ahead at such a pace it can’t keep up with itself. Mavela’s downfall is largely accomplished over the course of a montage set to an Amy Winehouse cover. Marwan’s side of the story is also a little neglected, his home life only briefly mentioned. But then he’s not the one who has it worse. Bad as it is for all of them, it’s easier to be male in their world. Women are there to be passed around, a trait shared by both gangs. This treatment remains a little glib, particularly conversations Marwan has with his friend when he loses interest in a previous girlfriend, but El Arbi and Fallah just about rein it in.
If parts of Black remain underdeveloped, the fast pace and raw material makes for an absorbingly stylish story. It’s easy to see why El Arbi and Fallah have already moved onto Hollywood. There’s a lot of charm and plenty of tragedy in Marwan and Mavela’s ill-fated love story. Shakespeare wouldn’t have it any other way.
Directors: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah
Stars: Sanâa Alaoui, Martha Canga Antonio, Aboubakr Bensaihi
Runtime: 135 mins