(The silence of Lorna or Lorna’s silence)
written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
2008 / Belgium / France / Italy / color / 105 minutes
French with English subtitles
DVD (region 2) from New Wave FIlms, UK
US release (region 1) from Sony Pictures (scheduled for January 2010)
When a viewer takes in a film by the Dardenne brothers, there’s work to be done. The Belgian auteurs don’t lay everything out in an ‘a + b = c’ order like so many directors – one has to pay attention. It’s not as if their films are overly obtuse or ‘difficult’ – they reflect life, and the pieces of life rarely fit together like an entry-level jigsaw puzzle. The details of characters and plot are there to be discovered / uncovered as the film progresses – it’s a process that places more responsibility on the shoulders of the viewer…but it’s more than worthwhile, engendering an interaction that, like a good exercise session, has an invigorating effect and leaves a sense of involvement and satisfaction in accomplishment in its aftermath. The process also embeds the film and the mica-like layers of thought that engendered it in the mind of the viewer, encouraging a reflection on what has been experienced that is as natural as that stimulated by events in the real world. The world depicted in the Dardennes’ films is a very real one indeed – as real as that created by the great French director Robert Bresson in his work. Their work is by no means derivative of Bresson’s, but he’s an obvious influence – they’ve taken bits and pieces of his philosophy of cinema and added them to their own ideas and goals, moving the art form forward as only those who create from their soul can do. I think Bresson would admire their work – I don’t think he’d feel as if they had copied him.
Combining these techniques with actors who have the ability to transform themselves into their characters with an incredible ease and naturalness, captured on film and brought to the screen with their almost instantly recognizable ‘invisible’ photography that places the viewer in the scene with the characters, participating as a witness, rather than simply watching a film, makes for one of the most unique experiences in contemporary cinema. Their films are works of high art that can instantly be appreciated by any viewer who offers attention – the depth of character and situation that is embodied in them can invest a depth of empathy in an audience that is a rare thing indeed.
How else could filmmakers take such characters as a junkie and a woman who has allowed herself to be involved with petty criminals in a marriage-for-citizenship scam and make us care about them, experiencing and recognizing the humanity in these far-less-than-perfect people? The titular Lorna (exquisitely portrayed by Arta Dobroshi) is a recent immigrant from Albania to Belgium, where the film is set. She has entered into a marriage with Claudy Moreau (Jérémie Renier, veteran of two other Dardenne films, La promesse  and L’enfant , as well as works by other directors) in order to achieve Belgian citizenship. Claudy is a junkie, and has been chosen by Fabio, a petty criminal working as a cab driver, as an easy target for the game he is playing. Fabio is in league with the Russian mafia – the long-term plan calls for Claudy to be killed, leaving Lorna a widow and free to remarry a Russian who is also seeking citizenship. Everyone gets a cut of the money involved, including Lorna's boyfriend Sokol…except of course for Claudy, who is viewed as disposable – ‘He’s only a junkie,’ says Sokol.
The very first scene of the film shows money being exchanged, Lorna apparently depositing a sum into an account. Currency changes hands so much on screen that it almost becomes another character – but on careful observation, it’s actually multiple characters…or at least possessing multiple personalities depending on its source, destination, and purpose. Sometimes it is a negative force driving characters apart – sometimes a positive one that has the potential of drawing them together.
The scheme seems to be foolproof…until Lorna begins to see Claudy not as a disposable pawn, but as a human being. The emotional process through which she passes is one of subtle shifts, but it is every bit as gut-wrenching as Claudy’s attempts to rid himself of his drug habit, desperate to reclaim his life. She agrees to help him stay clean if he will agree to a divorce, freeing her to move on to the next step in the scheme being directed by Fabio. The cab-driving would-be crime magnate, however, is not interested in any change of plans – and the conflicts deepen and become more complicated. All of this begins to play on Lorna’s conscience and psyche, the colors of her emotions shift and change hue, imperceptibly at first – and she also begins to see that those with whom she is playing this game are less concerned with her long-range plans than she first thought. As the plotline circles become tighter and tighter, the tension naturally increases, leading to a conclusion that I won’t reveal…but one that is unexpected, as are so many conclusions in life itself. Her ‘silence’ is multifold – information given by her is doled out frugally…to herself as well as to others.
There are some noticeable differences between this film and the earlier work by the Dardennes – but their style is intact, merely showing their growth as writers / directors, as well as employing some ‘improved tools’ such as the use of 35mm cameras instead of their usual 16mm. There’s even a bit of music at the end of the film, a conscious decision they made in order to allow the mood to fade slowly, much like a sustained note on a piano that ends a piece with a lingering, languid decay. The in-your-face shots are still here, along with camera work designed and executed in such a way as to enhance the viewer’s sense of true presence in the film. Working from their script with their actors, they’re willing to listen to ideas from the cast, implementing some if they feel that the film is improved by their inclusion. It’s a nice combination of a give-and-take process over which they maintain ultimate control – and one about which they speak at length in one of the interviews (the other being with Arta Dobroshi) that is included as an extra in this, the UK edition of the DVD (it’s due to be released in the US by Sony in January of 2010 – hopefully the same extras and image / sound quality will be present). These elements are hallmarks of their style, placing their work on a higher plane than most contemporary cinema – a level that, thankfully, they manage to meet and surpass with each release. Experiencing their films can bring one into closer contact with one’s own humanity by virtually inhabiting the characters created and brought to life on the screen: art that promotes empathy and understanding, which has a value far beyond that of mere entertainment.
Of their other feature films, Le fils (The son) (2002) and L’enfant (The child) (2005) are the only two available in current release in the US; La promesse (The promise) (1996) is out of print in this country, although some rental outlets might still have it. Rosetta (1999), as far as I’m aware, has never been available in this country. All of these are in print in Europe – if you have a region-free player, they’re out there and they’re not all that expensive. Each one is a modest, yet extremely enriching, satisfying masterpiece of film art – and they’ll no doubt cause your expectations to be raised where cinematic creation is concerned.
With the film currently in limited theatrical release in the US, Sony Pictures have a website for it, where you can read more about it as well as view a trailer – click here. If it comes to a theatre near you, I strongly recommend seeing it on a big screen – if not, by all means find a copy of the DVD. It’s an unforgettable experience, one that should not be missed. It won the award for best screenplay at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival...and it very much deserves this sort of recognition.