Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Migrating toward the margins

A junkie pleads with the woman he was paid to marry.


What should be a major cinematic event -- the arrival of a new Dardenne brothers film -- has turned into a kind of footnote, a cinematic afterthought tucked beneath the ceaseless flow of more recognizable but less significant pictures. Lots of self-proclaimed film buffs effuse over Quentin Tarantino, but you won't find many of them singing the praises of the Dardennes, who have directed such estimable films as Rosetta, The Child, and The Son. Widely recognized or not, the Dardenne brothers remain great filmmakers, and nothing about their latest movie, Lorna's Silence, suggests otherwise.

So what makes the Dardennes special? For one thing, they get more out of narrowly focused films than many directors are able to obtain from epic-scaled productions. They're particularly adept at exposing personal crises that point toward larger social breakdowns. Lorna's Silence, the story of an Albanian immigrant who's trying to make her way in Belgian society, immerses us in another life on the margins. The Dardennes tell the story by pushing us into a closed world. They're not wringing their hands about the diminishment of Belgian identity or shedding tears over immigrant woes. The characters in Lorna's Silence are trying to cope with the world as they find it. The Dardennes don't view them through a filter of predigested notions -- and, as a consequence, neither do we.

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who works for a dry cleaning company, has married a junkie (Jeremie Renier). Renier's character has been paid to become Lorna's husband. Once Lorna's granted citizenship, she's pushed by gangsters to get rid of her heroin-addicted spouse. She's supposed to make herself available to the next immigrant who's willing to buy citizenship, this time by marrying her. As the movie progresses, the Dardennes slowly reveal what amounts to a ruthless cycle of deception.

Those familiar with the Dardennes will recognize many of their trademark touches: the lack of a musical soundtrack (with a brief exception at the picture's end), the heavy reliance on close-ups that simultaneously disorient and reveal, and a sustained sense of bleak, unforgiving realism. Lorna's Silence has a little more plot than previous work from the Dardennes, but if it's the first Dardenne brothers movie you've seen, you'll be struck by its sparsity and concentration.

The social dimensions of Lorna's story are clear, but Lorna has additional problems -- not the least of which is that she's torn by the dictates of conscience. She's less than eager to fulfill her obligations to the crime bosses who insists that she help eliminate her junkie husband.

In scenes of rare immediacy, the Dardennes expose us to a culture of crime and corruption that has developed around immigration, and Lorna's Silence emerges as a worthy addition to a small but powerful body of work that informs and chastens while refusing to indulge our escapist urges.

Lorna's Silence opens Friday, Aug. 28 in Denver.

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