Character

on March 27, 1998 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
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   Based on the 1938 Dutch novel by F. Bordewijk of the same name, this Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film echoes with the haunting strains of a classic myth. Richly detailed in both its period look and engrossing tale, the story, set in 1920s Holland, kicks off with the arrest of a young man, Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet), for the brutal murder of the town's hated bailiff, Dreverhaven ("Antonia's Line's" Jan Decleir), who turns out to be the young man's father.
   Raised without any explanation about his origins from his immutably silent mother Joba (Betty Schuurman), Katadreuffe endures the neighbors' abuse and insults because of his illegitimacy and finds solace only within the solitary comfort of books. Curious and then desperate for acknowledgment from the man he believes is his father, Katadreuffe recedes into apathy when Dreverhaven disavows him, and grows into an aimless, callow youth, until unexpectedly prodded into action when he unwittingly becomes entangled in Dreverhaven's ruthless money-lending machine. Believing Dreverhaven has set himself intentionally against him, Katadreuffe gradually discovers his own driving ambitions and abilities through his efforts to resist Dreverhaven's apparently malicious designs.
   In his enormous sweeping black trench-coat and fedora pulled low, Decleir resembles a daunting (if faintly amusing) cross between Darth Vader and classic-era film gangster (or squeezable pug) William Bendix. Van Huet's Katadreuffe looks disarmingly like Robert Downey Jr., with a perennial ?deer in the headlights? gaze reflecting his constant confusion, but is otherwise quite appealing. The film's grim tone is lightened appreciably by unexpected doses of humor and a bittersweet romance between Katadreuffe and an office secretary, Lorna (beautifully and heart-breakingly played by Tamar van den Dop), making it a stirring and decidedly intelligent film.
   An impressive feature debut by writer-director Mike van Diem, "Character's" intrigue lies in its avoidance of simple or conventional rationalizations and is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's obsessive celluloid treatises on his love-hate relationship with his father.    Starring Fedja van Huet, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman and Tamar van den Dop. Directed by Mike van Diem. Written by Mike van Diem, Lauren Geels and Ruud van Megen. Produced by Laurens Geels. A Sony Picture Classics release. Drama. Dutch language; English subtitles. Unrated. Running time: 119 min.
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