De Witte van Sichem is one of the most popular (perhaps THE most popular) movie ever made in Flanders - Belgium. It's based on the work of Ernest Claes who was a famous writer in Belgium. The movie opens up with a priest drinking and then a statue of Christ followed by a long shot view of a church and then a vast scene of fields …… This opening establishes the year as 1901 with Belgium still mainly as a Feudal society. Church influence and presence is heavily noticeable.
Our main character “Lewie” or as everybody else calls him “de Witte” (the Whitey, due to his white albino hair) is a 12 year old kid who is always up to a mischief. His mischief’s turns him into a brat. And I do mean a real brat...he lies, steals and causes disturbance in his class, family and, in the field. He's the youngest son of a poor family and eventually has to leave school and start working on a farm that belongs to a rich farmer who has it all. The father like most other neighbors is a hard working God fearing man and is respected and feared by his family. In fact the fear part stretches more for “Witte” than the respect part since our main character in reality does not accept or recognize any form of higher authority what so ever.
The movie shows very little of the relationship between the main character and the rest of the family in details which is somehow a little annoying. We just get this picture of father, mother and two brothers on one side and “Witte” on the other side constantly getting into each others face and bullying “Witte” around. In fact, the family unit in this movie is what you might call in these modern days with all “tags” and “labels” given, a totally dysfunctional family.
Their lives consist of nothing more but hard labor and going to church, where they get to hear that once they are dead God will make no difference in rank or gender, but until then they have to accept everything the Church and their boss tells them. At this point politics and political views emerge. Movie takes a different turn for a while with the rise of socialism and it becomes the leading thread running through the rest of the movie were several of the laborers start to have doubts about the way their lives are controlled by others. The poor men are attracted by the idea of socialism while the Catholic church is desperately trying to bring it down.
Our main character finds himself to be in the middle of this but he doesn't care all that. He prefers to learn about Belgium’s ancient history and through the books of Hendrik Conscience and re-enacting it with his friends. As we see it in the part where village children play this savage game of “War”.
Because of the many practical jokes and reckless pranks of our character throughout the entire film, 'De Witte' sometimes becomes more of a comedy than a drama and, before you even know it, you've forgotten about the dark side of the film. But very quickly it recovers and you can see and feel the dark side of their hard life. Most of the time it is the main character that claims your full attention. This is still, beyond any doubt, Robbe De Hert's best film. He hasn't made too many good films, but this one is a Belgian classic. Also many good acting performances, but Eric Clerckx (as De Witte van Sichem) is 'picture perfect'.
Director Robbe De Hert manages to create a realistic portrait of this particular atmosphere. It represents a world in which poor people have to work hard for little money. How religion and church controls their every day life while offering no salvation or relief only a remote promise about when they all, rich or poor, die they will looked upon the same.
The whole story is set in a rural community thus expect to see a lot of simplicity, a lot of free spirited country youth and loads of greenery. The dialect might be hard to understand even for the natives and sometimes it is completely lost in the translation and subtitle. But in general one can follow the story with no problem.
In a nut shell the story is about an annoying little fellow who takes pleasure in doing wrong. There are certain rules in life everyone must obey, but he finds it amusing to bend or even break them whenever the opportunity knocks. In short: he has some serious trouble with discipline. It reminds me of “Dennis the Menace” with a Flamish touch.
I enjoyed watching this movie even though I had to rely on English subtitle heavily to understand the dialog but that’s just me a sucker for foreign movies with subtitle. I would recommend this movie to those who need a refuge from Hollywood movies. On the same token I would recommend two other movies as well “Pelle Erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror)” and “1900” both with the same theme.