The slim possibility that crime may pay is the old-fashioned but solid engine powering "The Right of the Weakest." Engaging account of decent folks scraping by in a former steel town builds suspense with a keen eye and a sharp ear. Commercial runs in Europe and offshore arthouse dates beckon following film's Cannes competition slot.

The slim possibility that crime may pay and fortune may smile on the little guy is the old-fashioned but solid engine powering “The Right of the Weakest.” Consistently engaging account of decent folks scraping by in a former steel town builds suspense with a keen eye and a sharp ear for the pride of workers who no longer have work. Belgian writer-director-actor Lucas Belvaux (“Trilogy”) imbues his portrait of an industrial community with the residue of history and the urgency of the dead-end present. Commercial runs in Europe and offshore arthouse dates beckon following film’s Cannes competition slot.

In an intriguing opening shot, middle-aged men behind a chain-link fence look on silently as a once-mighty steel mill in Liege is dismantled for scrap. Central characters and the ties between them are then introduced at a steady but slightly mysterious pace.

Fiftysomething Robert (Claude Semal) wakes up in the middle of the night to drink beer. He lives in the same tall, ugly apartment building as his best friend, Jean-Pierre (Patrick Descamps), who has been confined to a wheelchair since a long-ago accident at the foundry. When the apartment building’s elevators are out of order, Robert carries barrel-chested Jean-Pierre on his back rather than miss their regular card game at the cafe.

The youngest card player is Patrick (Eric Caravaca), a thirtysomething unemployed house-husband whose college degree has been useless. His wife Carole (Natacha Regnier) works an exhausting shift at an industrial laundry. They have a well-mannered son, Steve (Elie Belvaux), but their funds are so scarce that their household equilibrium is imperiled when Carole’s motorbike breaks down for good.

Terse loner Marc (Belvaux), out of prison and determined to go straight, untangles bottles on the assembly line at the local beer factory.

When to resign yourself to the status quo — however raw or untenable a deal it may be — and when to take matters into your own hands is the slow-burning idea that builds to a smartly staged finale.

Flashes of Ken Loach-like situational humor crossed with the unrelenting social challenges of the Dardenne Bros. come to mind. But Belvaux, whose interlocking “Trilogy” was powerful and inventive, continues to stake his own stylistic claim with appealing — if desperate — characters.

Narrative is set up so there are no clear-cut bad guys. Except, that is, the inexorable march of exploitative globalization that leaves the talents and good will of decent, ordinary people dangling as collateral damage.

Interactions are written and played for maximum authenticity with the supple widescreen camera rarely losing sight of the environment — river, factories, public housing, workers’ cottages with gardens — that forged the personalities on display. Agreeably unsettling score is deployed with finesse.

The Right of the Weakest

France - Belgium

Production

A Diaphana Distribution release of an Agat Films & Cie. (France)/Entre Chien & Loup (Belgium) production, in association with France 3, RTBF, Araneo Belgium, Ateliers de Baere. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Patrick Sobelman, Diana Elbaum. Directed, written by Lucas Belvaux.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Pierre Milon; editor, Ludo Troch; music, Ricardo Del Fra; art director, Frederique Belvaux; costume designer, Nathalie Raoul; sound (Dolby), Gerald Rousseau, Henri Morelle, Beatrice Wick, Frank Struys; assistant director, Christophe Marillier. Reviewed at Club Marbeuf screening room, Paris, May 9, 2006. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Eric Caravaca, Natacha Regnier, Lucas Belvaux, Patrick Descamps, Claude Semal, Elie Belvaux, Gilbert Melki, Theo Hebrans, Christian Crahay.
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