Whitey (De Witte Van Sichem)(1980)





The second movie version, now in color, of Flemish (heimat-)author Ernest Claes'' classical novel, titled after the nickname (Dutch ''the White'', referring to a blond male) of the main character. The smart but naughty farmhands son''s eternal mischief, pranks and disobedience drive his elders (especially teachers, family and father''s grumpy employer, a rich farmer, but also neighbors and even the kind curate whose liturgical server he is) and classmates to despair in a time when a boy''s punishment was still inevitable, swift and often severe; thus when his mother catches him skinny dipping she takes all his clothes home, forcing him to a long walk of shame, dreading dad''s wrath all the way. This version also stresses the story''s social and Flamingant aspects.

This insightful, excellent drama is based on a popular novel from the 1930s and is the second cinematic version of the story of young Whitey (Eric Clerckx). Whitey and his family live in poverty in Flanders, working for a wealthy farmer. Whitey''s main passion is reading, although he has no affection for school or for farm work. His hyperactive imagination finds an outlet with his friends, as he sets them up to play-act battles from literature. In order to feed his reading habit Whitey borrows or steals to get books. Already in trouble and not yet out of school, Whitey''s future looks bleak -- he was born in the wrong social register at the wrong time.

"De Witte" is a typical Flemish film that gives the viewer an idea of how the conditions were at the beginning of this century in Flanders (this is the Dutch-speaking, Northern side of Belgium.) 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. They work on the farm or in factories. People were very religious and went to church every Sunday wearing their best clothing. The father was a severe workingman; respected by his children and wife. If any of his children had said or done something wrong, they were to be punished. They were beaten and then they had to kneel on the floor facing the wall and praying for their sins.

But all this is just background information. The actual story is less dramatic. It''s 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. Naturally, he is the main character of the film and goes by the name of ''De Witte van Sichem'' (literally translated: ''The white-haired from Sichem'').

Because of the many practical jokes and reckless pranks that endure throughout the entire film, ''De Witte'' becomes more and more of a comedy than a drama. Before you even know it, you''ve forgotten about the dark side of the film. Instead, 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''.