The family that drinks together stays together. Or perhaps that's a more positive way of saying they're stuck together. That's the predicament of the Strobbe family in The Misfortunates, Beligiun's ultra rowdy and often funny answer to Jackass, COPS and Barfly all rolled into one. It's a rambunctiously vulgar and emotionally bleak binge of dysfunction and sloth that manages to find surprising moments of clarity and redemption amid the ruins.
Before he blossoms into a Flemish Charles Bukowski, 13-year-old Gunther Strobbe watches his marginally employed and suicidally drunken father and three brothers commit themselves to little more than downing beer, cavorting in naked bicycle races and distinguishing themselves in other competitions thrown by their preferred village pub. In one of the more inspired scenes, uncle "Beefcake" Strobbe guzzles booze in a simulated Tour de France that translates pints into kilometers, and takes place over the course of a month.
The Strobbe brothers are serially in and out of minor trouble with the law, the bar and Gunther's school. They are a public laughing stock, and some combination of resentment and shame makes them fiercely loyal to one another and belligerent towards all others, including their own mother when she tries to intervene to save them from harming one another. She attempts to steer Gunther toward a better or at least sober life, but his father would rather initiate his son into their brotherhood, a darkly abusive gauntlet of humiliation. But mockery and contempt from teachers and schoolmates make his family a sort of refuge.
Director Felix Van Groeningen's gritty film focuses tightly on the Strobbe's suffocating world. Gunther sleeps in a bedroom where one of his uncles drunkenly copulates with whomever he brings home from the bar. Family members pick at each other incessantly, especially Gunther when he does anything productive or independent. The abyss seems to worsen as we learn how many of the characters were unplanned children and/or from unidentified fathers. In one stunningly wretched and comic scene in a bar, a man who has drunk himself into dialysis realizes he is looking at his young teenage daughter for the first time — and buys her a drink, partially because he's amazed he sired such a beautiful child. None of this phases the Strobbe brothers, even though she is their niece, and they teach her a filthy drinking song.
The debauchery goes from funny to dark to disturbing, and it can be both hilarious and hard to watch. But underneath the chaos, Groeningen crafts a compassionate and sobering story about coping with a world of disadvantages and dysfunction. It's a 2009 Cannes award winner and entertaining for both the party and the morning after. The film is in Flemish with English subtitles. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
Through June 20
9:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri. & Sun.; 4 p.m. Sat.
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net