The fast-moving boy in “The Kid With a Bike,” a quietly rapturous film about love and redemption from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, races along with frightening intensity, his little legs pedaling hard, his eyes fixed on a heart-heavy destination. What the 11-year-old Cyril (the newcomer Thomas Doret, touchingly serious) wants — what every muscle in his small, tensed body strains toward — is the father who left him at a children’s home, abandoning his only son to the kindness of strangers with as seemingly little regard and feeling as someone else might toss a pair of old shoes.
Cyril’s search for his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier, a Dardenne regular), initially drives “The Kid With a Bike,” giving it relentless momentum (those small legs pump like pistons) and investing it with palpable peril. Early in the film, Cyril escapes the home and races out, trying to find his father. He makes his way to the bleak apartment complex where they lived, but all that remains of their life together are empty rooms and peeling walls. For a long, painful moment, Cyril stands eerily still in one of the rooms, facing away from the camera — his shoulders look so small — the camera keeping a slight distance from this child who has literally turned his back on the world.
Although not much appears to have happened at this point — a boy ran and ran some more and then hopped on a bus or two and kept on running — if you’re familiar with the Dardennes, you may feel as if you recognize this willful child. Like the title teenage character in their film “Rosetta,” Cyril is an extraordinarily physical presence — you’re acutely aware of the effort involved in his movements, in his running, colliding and scaling walls — and stubborn. For Cyril, this seeming obstinacy is a manifestation of faith: he feverishly believes in his father, believes that they will be reunited and that Guy would never have sold Cyril’s beloved bicycle.
Shortly after he goes to the apartment, Cyril is off again, a few steps ahead of the children’s home counselors who have followed. He tries to take refuge in a medical office in the building, where he crashes into a woman, Samantha (Cécile de France), so hard that they both fall as the counselors move in. Cyril locks her in a hug, holding on as if to a buoy as the counselors try to pry him loose. “You can hold me,” Samantha says, “but not so tight.” The collision happens so fast that you may not initially recognize the underlying poeticism of the milieu, a place of suffering and healing. In an interview in Film Comment, Jean-Pierre Dardenne characterizes Cyril’s hold on Samantha as a “reverse Pietà.”
This unusual description of the religious image — in a traditional Pietà, Mary cradles Jesus in her arms after the crucifixion — is of a piece with the Dardennes’ profound, socially conscious explorations of familiar Christian (they were raised as Roman Catholics) themes of love, forgiveness, redemption and moral awakening in a secular context and age. Or, as Luc Dardenne once put it about another of their films, “when God is dead.” In the earlier film “The Son,” for instance, a carpenter, newly acquainted with the teenager who years before killed his child, makes a decision not to murder the teenager. In “The Child” a young hustler sells his own newborn son for money only to save the infant, another child and finally himself.
Even as Cyril lets go of Samantha, she begins to bring him close, first by retrieving his bicycle. Much of the story, written by the Dardennes and set, as usual, around the post-industrial municipality of Seraing, Belgium, involves a series of quotidian incidents after Cyril, at his request, starts staying with Samantha on weekends. (You wonder if he thinks he’s found a sucker.) Cyril bikes and bikes some more; Samantha works at her hair salon. As he continues his searching, his restlessness matched by the Dardennes’ moving camera (the cinematographer is their regular, invaluable collaborator, Alain Marcoen), the relationship between Cyril and Samantha brings to mind one of the laws of motion: A body in motion travels in a straight path until acted on by an outside force.
Here, as elsewhere in the Dardennes’ work, that outside force is another human being. The Dardennes never explain why Samantha agrees to take care of Cyril. She doesn’t attend church or spout pieties; there’s nothing obviously in it for her. Rather, her goodness is a given. It’s hard not to think that Ms. de France, who here wears a lot of sleeveless blouses, was partly cast for her beautifully sculptured arms, which look strong enough to lift any burden. The solidity of those arms and of Ms. de France’s overall physicality function somewhat contrapuntally with the uncharacteristic, brief flourishes from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor” Concerto) that punctuate several scenes, a use of music that recalls the films of Robert Bresson, an important influence on the Dardennes.
The use of the Beethoven, the music soaring, as well as what appears to be a kind of resurrection, makes it easy to read “The Kid With a Bike” as a religious allegory, though that would be reductive. One thing that makes the Dardennes’ work so vibrant, at once new and seemingly timeless, is that they ask the most urgent questions we can ask of ourselves — including, what is it to be human — and in nondoctrinaire, nonproscriptive terms. This isn’t to deny the religious influence, which runs as deep in their films as it does in the outside world, but to argue that they have recast that influence in philosophical and aesthetic terms. “Rosetta,” “The Son,” “The Child” and “The Kid With a Bike” are, in the most expansive sense, good works.