'Lorna's Silence' Speaks Volumes About Morality
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 28, 2009
Despite the lofty place they occupy in world cinema, filmmaking brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have never bothered turning their pensive, intimate camera on characters falling from great societal heights. No, their people-in-crisis are generally only two or three rungs from the bottom already, which makes the stakes not just desperate but dire.
In their latest -- the noirish, gripping "Lorna's Silence" -- the title character is an Albanian emigre and pawn in a trans-European marriage-for-immigration racket, whose conspirators would rather kill her husband than wait for a divorce. Does she save the husband, or save herself? As they've done often enough, the Dardennes place their heroine at the intersection of economic salvation and moral damnation, with very few places to turn that don't involve a head-on collision with a nasty fate.
Played with sullen determination by the Kosovo-born Arta Dobroshi, Lorna is an innately decent woman trying to be a hard case, because it's her only sensible choice. The man to whom she's married, Claudy (Dardenne regular Jrmie Renier, looking particularly raw-boned and seedy), is a junkie who's been paid to marry and divorce Lorna in order to provide her with Belgian citizenship. With her new status, she can move on to larger enterprises -- a wealthy Russian, for instance, whom she plans to wed for a tidy profit (and, presumably, then divorce him and marry others).
Because the Russian's in a hurry, because Belgian divorce is slow, because he's the parasitic product of an economic system gone loco, Lorna's "handler," Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), has decided it makes more sense to give Claudy an overdose. "He's just a junkie," Fabio mutters, as if to say, "it's just business."
To call Lorna's attitude toward Claudy brusque would be like saying Hitler had an unfriendly attitude toward Poland. Their relationship has been set up as ultimate in arranged mismatches -- the nightly ritual involves dismantling the one bed, so Claudy can sleep on part of it in the living room. Their involvement with each other -- Lorna's choice, not Claudy's -- is minimal, and she never smiles. But when Claudy attempts to kick his heroin habit, mostly to win some respect from his wife, he also wins a piece of her heart. And as she helps him, negotiating with the ruthless Fabio and letting her profits drift away in the process, we sense the presence of a fractured saint.
The Belgian brothers, who won this year's screenplay prize at Cannes (where they have won the Palme d'Or twice), are among the world's more plainly political filmmakers: Their heroes (in "Rosetta," "La Promesse" and "The Son") are prisoners of class and need. The characters' crimes, and their acts of nobility, are dictated by where on the economic ladder fate has placed them. As the Dardennes see it -- and they make us agree -- these people possess a moral gravity that's positively Greek. That Lorna, a kind of jetsam bobbing along the transcontinental human drift, can even make moral choices brings her close to sanctification. And, of course, tragedy.
But while the Dardennes may be moralists, they are also makers of thrillers: The story within "Lorna' Silence" is built on tiny increments of tantalizing details, meted out in penurious droplets and with chest-tightening tension that suggests that what the brothers wanted to be when they grew up were boa constrictors -- Belgian boas, with degrees in Marxist theory.
Lorna's Silence (105 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and AMC Loews Shirlington) is rated R for sexual content, drug content, nudity and vulgarity. In French with English subtitles.