By Ray Pride
While it becomes increasingly difficult for an English-subtitled film to make more than tens of thousands of dollars in the U. S. theatrical market, European and Scandinavian filmmakers continue to find the hundreds of thousands of Euros necessary to make their movies. (No one’s told them we’re not watching them on the big screen.)
Are we all too aware of great films that sometimes we simply take them for granted? “Lorna’s Silence” is the seventh feature by Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The thriving, vital, punishing underclass of modern Europe remains their subject even as they move down the Belgian autoroute a piece, from the factory town of Seraing where they shot movies like “Rosetta” (1999) and “L’enfant” (2005), both of which won the Palme d’or at Cannes. A young Albanian woman, Lorna (the Kosovan Arta Dobroshi), schemes to open a snack bar with her boyfriend, Sokol (Alban Ukaj) in the French-speaking Liège. But even along the porous borders of the new Europe, papers need to be in order and she becomes a pawn of a gangster (Fabrizio Rongione) who sets up the equivalent of a green-card marriage between Lorna and Claudy (Jérémie Renier) so she can become a Belgian citizen. Complications ensue when a Russian Mafioso comes up with an enormous amount of money for her identity papers if only Claudy were out of the way. A price makes a deed real. But it also introduces moral questions: what other price would be exacted if Lorna went through with the second, deadly deal?
“Lorna’s Silence” was greeted modestly on its debut in 2008, with critics largely seeing the pair as Cannes standards, where the film took a screenwriting prize. Reviews largely feinted with damn praise: these guys are good, but are we seeing the same film again and again?
A woman hoping to rise above economic oppression—like “Rosetta”—with a round, open face and short, gamine brunette hair—like Dobroshi here, a young Émilie Dequenne in “Rosetta”—turns and squirms and maneuvers just so only to fall short at the hands of men, at the hands of forces larger even than the border-crossing smugglers and traffickers she knows. Similar, yes, the Dardennes have themes and concerns, but admirably, they’re expressed through action and process. How does Lorna get a new apartment? How does she hope to go into business with fresh citizenship papers? How does she elude the Russians who want to exploit her? It’s forward moment and forward motion: not reflection, not psychological examination. Motivations are indicated by Dobroshi’s strong features and ardent smile shielded by fearful eyes, not text, not the plain contours of plot.
Others see it otherwise. The Internet, of course, has brought something else to the table aside from the twenty-first century’s own brand of information ADD, and that’s extended, distended exchanges about movies, from the most utopian notions to the most spectacularly painstaking or nitpicking. In the past week, at nictate.blogspot.com, an extended pitched argument was made by several commenters for “Lorna’s” being “misogynist,” and the blogger insists that “I can’t be wrong in stating a personal opinion about a piece of cinematic art. I can have a conflicting opinion with everyone else who has seen the film and even the filmmakers themselves. I don’t have the journalistic responsibilities of professional critics who might have to filter some of their personal reactions or feel the need to measure the possible firestorm the use of a certain word might set off in their readerships.”
The testiness of subjectivity! But that conversation also demonstrates the richness of suggestive naturalistic filmmaking built from concrete actions and gestures that can be invested with myriad perspectives from each and every viewer. The look of the film still bears the Belgian overcast of most of Dardennes’ images, but shot on 35mm, rather than the usual 16mm, there’s a different weight to the images, a thisness, not the impact of their handheld work, or a grittiness often used to indication a vérité-styled fiction. Even as the Dardennes remain fond of a close-in style, trailing at a subject’s shoulders, moving with them through public space yet in a confined manner, there is a quiet beauty in their compositions, blocking of actors and their actors’ faces, more solid, less tentative. Some viewers forget the almost voluptuous use of color (and of youthful faces) in the last films of Robert Bresson, “The Devil, Probably” (1977) and “L’argent” (1983). Precision and austerity are not the same thing, amply demonstrated by the ending of the movie, where there is shelter and hope in a haunted wood, there is even music. Dobroshi’s embodiment of Lorna is stunning in its vitality: that alone would make one hopeful for European film, for Europe.
“Lorna’s Silence” opens Friday at Pipers.
Photo credit: Ray Pride.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.