This essay contains plot spoilers.
It feels bitterly fitting that I revisited Rosetta the same week that my home town newspaper reported that my home state has one of the fastest growing poverty rates in the country. In North Carolina, despite a conservative definition of poverty (the News & Observer notes that a family of four living on $24,000 in Charlotte is not considered impoverished), eighteen percent of our states residents are living in poverty. For children, that rate rises to twenty-five percent. For children of color, forty-one.
The movie du jour today is The Wolf of Wall Street, a (depending on who you ask) condemnation or celebration of the the American dream for wealth and those who pursue it to the detriment of their neighbors. I found the relentlessly chronicled excesses of Wolf less offensive than boring. For three hours it plays the same note over and over. Money is the ultimate drug of choice, its pursuit no less an addiction than that of cocaine or marijuana.
It may strike some as somewhat archaic then that Rosetta’s obsession is not with money but work. She wants a job. A job means more than money to Rosetta–she eschews the opportunity to make money illegally–it means normalcy. The wolves of Wall Street do not want a normal life; they feel entitled to an exceptional one. Rosetta’s aspirations do not extend to reaching the summit of society; she just wants to be a part of it.
The film opens en medias res, just after Rosetta has been dismissed from employment at an ice cream factory. No reason has been given to her except that she was there on a trial basis and her probationary period is over. She must be literally dragged off the premises, as she dashes from room to room in the absurd hope that somehow she can avoid dismissal if she can keep the security guards from laying hands on her to evict her.
The Dardenne brothers report in an interview included on the Criterion DVD that they received criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for Rosetta’s story. Some thought they idealized Rosetta, and through her the poor. It is easier to think of the poor as lazy, drug addicted, or irresponsible than as thoughtful individuals ready to work but met by an indifferent capitalist world. Others complained that they idealized work through Rosetta’s obsession. Work, in some quarters, is supposed to lead to alienation, is just a different form of poverty and oppression.
The year 1999, when Rosetta was released, also marked the publication in Harper’s magazine of an article by Barbara Ehrenreich that would be extended into her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. That book chronicled Ehrenreich’s attempts to live on minimum wage, in part to test the ideas of whether necessity was truly the mother of invention and whether there were (are) secret economies of the poor.
Rosetta unlike the stereotypes of the poor perpetuated in the selling of welfare reform, is neither dumb nor slothful. She mends clothes and sells them to second-hand shops. She fashions fishing traps out of broken bottles and barbed wire. She scavenges abandoned boots to wear at home and hides her nicest pair of shoes in the woods, changing every time she leaves the house. When her mom is drunk, Rosetta carries the weight of the larger woman to get her into bed. When she suffers from severe menstrual cramps, she uses a hair dryer to apply topical heat.
The plot has neither the linear structure of a rise from adversity or decline from wealth film (such as Wolf of Wall Street or The Pursuit of Happyness) where each incident is meant to document a step up or down the economic ladder. Rosetta gets a job selling waffles at a food cart, then loses it when the owner’s son messes up and comes home. Rosetta is bewildered. Others mess up and are rewarded with her job; she works diligently and well and is peremptorily fired. Rather than take out her anger on the owner, she rats out the acquaintance, Ricquet, who recommended her to the boss in the first place. (He had been selling his own waffles under the table.) When asked why she turned on him, Rosetta replies simply, “I wanted a job.” This, too, is perhaps a lesson in cutthroat capitalism. Being valued by an employer is not about doing good work, it is about being willing to be ruthless towards other workers so that the boss doesn’t have to be.
One of the great triumphs of Rosetta is that poverty is conveyed viscerally and visually rather than narratively. In nearly every Dardenne film there is at least one scene in which a character thrashes about wildly, only to be physically restrained through a human embrace. In The Kid With a Bike, Lorna’s Silence, and The Son, that is an embrace of love that must still the desperation and despair and try to penetrate the armor of the wounded character. For Rosetta, however, touch happens rarely and is used to evict her from places of employment she wants to hold onto. Rosetta longs to be still, but the world needs her to move. She, and those like her, are in the way. The most memorable example is when she clings to a giant sack of flour so that she must be pulled out of the waffle cart. In a scene where a young man asks her to dance, his touch makes her uncomfortable. Visually, her physical thrashings subtly connect Rosetta to the fish in her bottle trap. She is blocked from moving forward or progressing, but hooked into the capitalist society that will also not let her escape.
There is a scene in The Son in which the carpenter teaches his mentee how to carry a beam of wood, and it is hard to look at that shot and not see an intended association with Jesus carrying the cross. That association was certainly present in the final scene of Rosetta, in which the protagonist, having decided to commit suicide, struggles to carry the canister of gas back to the mobile home. She like so many of the working poor is forced to carry the instrument of her intended death, a burden too big for her frail body. Like Jesus, her march is witnessed by a jeering audience, in this case the fired Riquet, who circles her menacingly in his motorbike.
The Dardennes report that the sublime irony of Rosetta’s conclusion was intentional. She is in one sense “saved by her own poverty,” since had she and her mother had enough money to have gas on hand, her suicidal impulse could have been seen to its conclusion. They also report that there was at least one version of the script in which Rosetta’s suicide was completed. In that version, she turns on the gas at work rather than at home, and the final shots were of cars passing the waffle cart oblivious to the dead body inside it.
I like the ending they chose, with its glimmer of hope. Of course that hope–that things might not end tragically for the poor if even one person was not indifferent to their suffering–was filmed fifteen years ago. Since that time the United States has undertaken costly and lengthy military operations (I’m not even sure where the line between “war” and other military operations is any more) and global capitalism has been crippled by the wolves of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese’s film ends with an unnecessary reminder that we live in a world where everything, everything is for sale.Rosetta ends with a subtle but apparently still needed reminder that the one whom billions worship as the Son of God associated himself with the poor and was also forced to carry the instrument that a despising world would use to try to rid itself of him.
Perhaps the best reason to watch Rosetta after The Wolf of Wall Street might be to guard against spiritual pride. Jesus said “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Never been indicted for stock fraud, thrown a midget, snorted cocaine, or hired a prostitute? Congratulations, you are not Jordan Belfort.
But I end these musings back where I started. One in four children in North Carolina lives in poverty. Perhaps kindness, compassion, and respect would be wasted on them. Perhaps a drink of water, a kind hand, a face of human compassion may not lift them out of poverty, may not not give them the will to walk one more step or live one more day. Perhaps it will, though.
Or maybe miracles only ever happen any more in Dardenne movies.