Release Date: July 31
Directors/Writers: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Arta Dobroshi, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione
Cinematographer: Alain Marcoen
Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures Classics, 105 mins.
Powerful, unflinching drama about money schemes and immigration is fifth consecutive great film from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers
Few filmmakers have made such a string of artistic successes as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne from Belgium. Even fewer have done it with a style so original and distinct as to influence filmmakers the world over. And fewer still have done it from a steady perspective of compassion. By all evidence, the Dardennes care deeply about the world’s forgotten people.
After turning away from genre filmmaking in the mid 1990s, the brothers have made La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, The Child (L’Enfant), and most recently Lorna’s Silence. Among the five are two winners of the Cannes film festival’s Golden Palm and another that I consider to be one of the very best films of the decade, if not the entire generation. It’s such a strong body of work that asking five admirers to pick a favorite could very well produce five answers. Some prefer the rigid focus of Rosetta, and some the sudden revelation of their brand of filmmaking in La Promesse. I’d choose The Son, a film as curious about woodworking as it is about the human limits of forgiveness, a film of exquisite, painstakingly crafted beauty disguised as simple observation. It breaks my heart every time I see it.
Lorna’s Silence continues the brothers’ great run. Lorna is a young Albanian woman involved in an ugly scheme to gain citizenship in Belgium, and from the outset, the film tests the viewer’s feelings for the title character. When she tries to alter the scheme in order to save someone’s life, she discovers the inertia that’s built into the black market, where the river of money flows over people as if they’re silt and debris. The first shot of the film shows the counting of bills, always an audible action in a Dardenne film, paper rubbing paper, and it’s an image that reappears often.
What’s most unusual about the Dardennes’ style is that they seem to ask moral questions in an opened ended way, without guidance about where the characters should land. A scheme that involves murder is clearly evil, but Lorna’s Silence seems more interested in how far Lorna will go to extract herself from it. Where might her view of the world snap? And as always, the brothers are masters at knowing what details to include and which, provocatively, to leave out. The way they establish the relationship between Lorna and (her roommate? boyfriend? husband?) Claudy through careful detail is pure Dardenne, as is their eye for telling gestures, like the shots of people behaving—or treating others—as animals: Lorna places a dish of water on the floor for Claudy, throws his envelope of money to watch him scamper on all fours, and buries the money herself by pawing at the dirt in a garden. Several major events happen off-screen in the blink of an eye, and although Lorna changes feelings and strategies several times, the audience is on its own to notice the shifts. She uses her body. She errs. She discovers but can’t fully renounce her own selfishness. Despite all of that, the Dardennes don’t ask the audience to make a moral judgment of Lorna but simply to think about her contradictions. We all have them, even if the stakes aren’t usually as high as Lorna’s.
Lorna’s Silence has one of the most controversial endings of any recent Dardenne film, and it didn’t wholly gel for me after one viewing. The milieu suddenly shifts from urban enclosures to a wooded enclave, and the brothers introduce a musical score, something they’ve eschewed entirely in their previous films. But on second viewing the ending approaches the sublime. Lorna’s actions are frustratingly hard to justify in any logical sense, but what she wants is quite clear. And that musical score consists of roughly eight notes—maybe two bars—from the Arietta of Beethoven’s 32nd piano sonata, followed by silence. That’s it. But in a Dardenne film, such a minute detail is noteworthy because it demonstrates the power of their stark style, namely that deviating from it carries meaning. They accomplish with a few seconds of tinkling piano what Michael Bay’s incessant, ear-splitting, Dolby Digital thuds can’t manage.