Set in the postindustrial hinterland of contemporary Belgium, Rosetta, which won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, reminds us that, in other parts of the global economy, keeping one's head above water is a round-the-clock job with no vacations and no sick pay--no pay at all, in fact. It so happens that a job, any job, is the one thing the heroine of this rambunctiously grim movie wants, and she goes after it like Brecht's Mother Courage, with teeth bared and conscience safely hidden away. Though young and rather pretty, Emilie Dequenne's Rosetta has the instincts of a sewer rat; she literally can't afford morals. But all she wants is a leg up, a chance to get her claws on the bottom rung of the ladder of success. Then she can start to become human--or, as she refers to it, "normal." A Marxist tract without polemic, Rosetta immerses us in the sheer materialism of daily life--Rosetta using toilet paper to plug up the hole in her window, for example, or running a blow dryer across her stomach to ward off the hunger pangs. Actually, the pangs could be an ulcer, or cancer. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who wrote and directed the movie, don't fill in all the blanks for us. They don't explain Rosetta so much as just follow her around, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. It's the following around that gives the movie such maniacal energy. Less a fly on the wall than a fly in Rosetta's face, the camera impinges on this poor girl the way life does, with neither pity nor remorse. Drawing on cinema verité and Italian neo-realism, the Dardennes offer a look at poverty from the bottom up--call it "The Real Real World."
Some viewers will not like what they see. If the Italian neo-realists always managed to find the poetry in poverty, the Dardennes see only dull, gray prose. And there are no moments of worker solidarity à la Norma Rae. When Rosetta is befriended by a gentle guy who sells waffles out of a cart, she uses him to get a job mixing the waffle batter. But that job, like all the others, soon dissipates, and Rosetta finds out just how far she's willing to go to get it back. I can't say the Dardennes don't throw it on a little thick at times--the fact that Rosetta's trailer, which she shares with her alcoholic mother, is located next to a muddy river, for instance. Not once, but twice, someone becomes mired in the muck, pulled under while the rest of life flows downstream. It's a cheap symbol, I suppose, but in such a frugal world, it'll have to do.