No one is making better films out of Europe these days than the Belgian Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), who for more than a decade have been churning out stunning, humane, punch-in-the-gut films about working class contemporary Europe. If you haven’t checked out their films The Promise (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and The Child (2005), I urge you drop everything and watch them.
Lorna’s Silence, the Dardennes’ latest film (and winner of the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2008), is yet another masterpiece—if not their best work then at least their most emotionally complex. It’s a film that left me incapacitated and breathless in my seat as the credits rolled.
I hesitate to say too much about this film because I’d rather you just see it for yourself and let it unfold before you. I went in to it purposefully oblivious to any plot details, knowing only that it was a Dardenne Bros film. If you want to do the same, perhaps you should stop reading here.
Lorna’s Silence centers around Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a working class Albanian woman who wants to open a restaurant in Belgium with her boyfriend. To gain Belgian citizenship (and to get a little extra money), she allows herself to be part of a mobster-conceived scheme in which she marries a druggie (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), divorces him, and then weds a Russian immigrant who also wants to gain Belgian citizenship. Whatever her motivation for getting involved in such a sordid plot, however, it quickly becomes clear that she is merely a means to an end for much more corrupt and dangerous gangsters. Her dreams or desires are the least of anyone’s priorities, and she is a woman alone in the company of some really bad men. She lets herself be used and abused by them with scarcely a word of protest, which is (presumably) where the film gets its title.
The film—as all Dardenne Bros films do—begins in medias res with only the slightest effort to catch the audience up on who these people are or why they are doing what they are doing. But gradually we come to know what we need to know, if only in the faintest of relief. But it’s okay. This film is not about the plot details as much as the plight of humanity at the center. Shot in the trademark visual style (handheld, spare, bleak, cold, with no effects or nondiegetic sound) that the Dardennes did first and better than all the many imitators, Lorna’s Silence puts us right in the middle of a horrifying, desperate urban world full of struggle and depravity and yet nevertheless haunted by hope and beauty. It’s all set against the backdrop of post-EU street-level Europe as it might be imagined through the dire eyes of Cormac McCarthy. It’s a bleak, godless place in which things like marriage and pregnancy are merely economic transactions and nurses at government run hospitals might provide the only unconditional affection in someone’s life.
But Lorna’s Silence isn’t primarily a commentary on contemporary working class Europe (though this is certainly an important part of it). It’s mostly about the journey of Lorna and the desperate situation she finds herself in—a situation at once out of her hands and completely within them. It’s a film about a woman and the tragic loneliness she endures. Who, if anyone, is in Lorna’s corner? As the film goes on, the question becomes increasingly depressing.
Lorna is a woman aching to make a better life for herself—to love and be loved back. She’s like everyone in that way. But unfortunately the hand she’s been dealt has mostly been hardship. She's an immigrant from a poor background (she wears the same red jeans in nearly every scene and works long hours as a dry cleaner), has no family in sight, and associates with all the wrong people. But she can’t blame circumstances on everything. She can help who she does business with and she could have said no from the beginning. But she didn’t, and so she suffers the consequences.
Still, as much as we know that Lorna has made bad decisions, it’s hard not to empathize with her and feel the existential desperation that cascades out of her eyes in almost every scene. She’s resilient and brave and only cries once or twice, but we see it in her countenance at every turn: Lorna is a very sad person. For most of the movie, she keeps it dangerously bottled up. But by the end of the film (the last ten minutes are breathtaking), Lorna finds a new strength and a new love to live for. She begins to truly speak.
Among the Dardenne Brothers other strengths, they tend to structure their films in such a way that tension and bleakness build up only to be released in a tiny but potent catharsis at the very last moment. Here, like in their stunning finale to The Child (L’Enfant), the Dardennes surprise us with where they end the film. When it cuts to black, in medias res as in the beginning, we feel the weight of an uncertain but hopeful resolution. As in life, we don’t know what exactly will happen, but to know would be to tragically and too-quickly move beyond the hardship and struggle we’ve just gone through. It’s better to just think about where we are and where we’ve come from, to mull over the journey thus far. However harrowing the future may be, it's enough to just worry about the now.