While I haven’t seen previous work from Belgian/Dutch filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, whose last film, “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” received an Oscar nomination, there is rich enough texture in his new film, “Belgica,” to truly marvel at the craft and storytelling. A festival programmer introduced this film, one of Sundance’s opening night selections, with the following statement: “For the last few years, we have been trying to get the World Dramatic category as top-tier as our US Dramatic. This year, thanks in part to this film, I think we finally reached that.”
The title comes from the bar in which the film takes place. Two brothers come together to expand what was previously a hole-in-the-wall bar into a full-on destination with a massive remodel. As their dream version of Belgica comes to fruition, so do added layers of conflict that arise with the massive growth: trouble with the new crowds, women, drugs, and differences in opinion on the bar’s future. The standout is the photography, which utilizes a broad variety of motifs and themes to display the strife that the two brothers are experiencing. At the beginning when the bar is small, the film carries a red hue with intimacy and fun themes, and as the bar expands beyond their control the color schemes shift toward a harsh and cold blue. That may be the largest visual shift but throughout there are numerous deliberate lighting decisions made to subtly enhance the viewer’s understanding of these characters. At the beginning working at Belgica seems like the best thing in the world, and as we go on we see that it comes with a lot of baggage and pain, paralleling a heavy night of partying and drinking.
The film feels a bit long at two hours, especially as the experiences get less jovial. A few of the side stories don’t entirely pay off, and most of the bar characters don’t have enough time to get fully realized. At the end of the day, this story is about two brothers in different stages of life figuring out how to handle it in the face of their own personal troubles. a very watchable story in that they are each so compelling and realized. No matter how frustrating some of their choices are, we want them to succeed and find what’s best. It’s this type of character development that lets the film fly.
The characters in “Belgica” are each so compelling and realized that no matter how frustrating some of their choices are, we want them to succeed. It’s this type of character development that lets the film fly. As someone who loves locations as characters, the titular Belgica is, of course, a prominent character of its own- morphing and developing as the plot progresses just like any of the actor’s characters. For the experience of vicariously owning and living at a bar, which includes both raging fun and slamming comedowns, “Belgica” is a compelling piece that visually stands above the crowd.