'An Angel in Doel'

An intimate look at the lives and forced departures of the last few residents of a Belgian village.

A headstrong widow defiantly decides to stay on in a Belgian village that’s about to be erased from the map in “An Angel in Doel,” the feature debut of Dutch documaker Tom Fassaert. Shot in mournful black-and-white, the intimate film sketches the lives and forced departures, by car or by coffin, of the last few Doel inhabitants, with the charmingly mulish Emilienne Driessen a standout long before she’s the last one standing. Seventy-six-minute pic, interspersed with melancholy shots of the abandoned parish, will go out in the Netherlands March 31, and could easily be repackaged for one-hour TV slots elsewhere.

The success of Geert Mak’s nonfiction bestseller “Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late 20th-Century Europe,” an obvious touchstone, bodes well for the film’s local release. Thankfully, Fassaert’s downbeat true story, with its subtle parallels between the definite end of a rural community and the final stretch of the lives of the last few inhabitants left, is not entirely without humor, especially in the gentle banter between the distaff protags.

Resolute Driessen is the uncrowned doyenne of Doel. A stubborn old lady who sometimes needs an oxygen mask, she refuses to entertain thoughts of leaving the home she lives in, despite the fact that all inhabitants have been officially told to leave because the village will have to make room for the planned extension of nearby Antwerp’s seaport.

Ailing village priest Kristiaan Verstraete (in some shots, the spitting image of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan) tells his tiny congregation that in God’s eyes, a community of 10 souls is as important as a much larger one. But one gets the feeling that when Driessen and two of her gray-haired girlfriends de-shell local shrimp while sharing memories and the latest gossip, they’re the last living souls left in a godforsaken place.

Like Raymond Dardon’s portraits of agrarian communities in contempo France (“Profils paysans: Le Quotidien,” “Modern Life”), “An Angel in Doel” chronicles a hard-knock, slowly disappearing way of life, with painterly touches and a keen eye for the humanity of its protags. And as in Depardon’s films, many of the conversations between locals unfold around the indisputable center of rural life: the kitchen table.

Small but telling visual details, such as a single window decorated with Christmas lights in a row of dark houses, hint at the larger dramas impacting those who have stayed behind. Effective high-angle shots of the deserted main drag, encompassing the obligatory “Doel Lives” graffiti and the first torn-down buildings, visually suggest Doel is already something of a ghost town, an impression reinforced by the lack of any type of bustle on the soundtrack; the exception is a handful of incongruous scenes in which some hippie-esque protesters from out of town descend on Doel to let it be known they want the village to stay.

Black-and-white lensing, by a crew of three cinematographers led by the young and talented Daniel Bouquet (“Nothing Personal”), features strong compositions and two impressive time-lapse sequences, but was not always pin-sharp at screening caught. Rest of tech package is serviceable.

An Angel in Doel

Netherlands

Production

An Amstelfilm release of a SNG production, in association with Cinete Filmproducties. Produced by Digna Sinke, Willem Thijssen. Directed, written by Tom Fassaert.

Crew

Camera (B&W, 16mm-to-HD), Daniel Bouquet, Diderik Evers, Reinout Steenhuizen; editors, Fassaert, Axel Skovdal Roelofs, Thabi Mooi; music, Tobias Borkert; sound, Victor Horstink, Jaap Hermans, Maarten de Rooij, Gijs Stollman. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 16, 2011. Running time: 76 MIN.

With

Emilienne Driessen, Kristiaan Verstraete.

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