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Troubled Grace:
The Dardenne Brothers’ Lorna’s Silence

The Stop Smiling Review

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lorna’s Silence
Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Despite retaining an immaculate profile on the international festival scene — a status cemented by their second Palme d’Or win, in 2005 for L’Enfant — the Dardenne brothers’ reputation has lately taken a bit of a hit. Artistic consistency can be as boring as it is laudable, and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s ever-subtle adjustment and refinement of their naturalistic portrayals of working class crises of conscience have, apparently, ceased to astonish. We know what we’re getting, seems to be the spoiled lament, and the experience of a Dardennes film has become, rather than revelatory, didactic and suspect. I was more than a little shocked when a disillusioned colleague with whom I saw Rosetta at a Dardenne mini-retro last year reversed his previous admiration for the filmmakers and dismissed their style as the prototype for the manipulative, false verisimilitude of Paul Greengrass. Such a dramatic turnaround in opinion accords, to a degree, with the critical reception to their latest, Lorna’s Silence, a film that in many corners has been rejected instead of embraced for its narrative of epiphany either on grounds of contrivance or political egregiousness. The thrill, such as it was for many, is gone.

If the Dardennes are due for a backlash, however slight, people have picked the wrong film to initiate it, because Lorna’s Silence is not only a beautiful film, but also one that moves the filmmakers’ art forward a small step or two — a tectonic shift for these art cinema old faithfuls. Lorna’s Silence begins, like all the Dardennes’ stories, on the margins of Belgian society: The title character (Arta Dobroshi) is an Albanian laundress married to an emaciated junkie, Claudy (L’Enfant’s Jérémie Renier), in order to obtain Belgian citizenship. As orchestrated by her illegal immigrant boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj) and a shady criminal friend, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), the deal is to kill Claudy by giving him an overdose and then wed Lorna to a high bidding Russian mobster, allowing him citizenship in turn and giving Lorna and Sokol money to start a trendy “snack bar” in the relatively major city of Liège (in contrast to Seraing, the steel industry capital of Belgium that’s set the scene for every previous Dardennes film). Why go to the extreme of killing Claudy? Because, as mastermind Fabio sees it, a marriage so soon following a divorce would look suspicious, and besides, a junkie’s a junkie — what’s another dead one?

In the film’s first part the Dardennes expertly lay out the moral stakes. The opening shot is of Lorna counting withdrawn bank money, and the brothers’ trademark handheld camerawork (here diminished in its so-called “guerilla-style” shakiness due to their first time use of a larger camera and wider framed 35mm stock) similarly establishes, without the crutch of expository dialogue, how economic circumstances shape Lorna’s life. Lorna and Claudy’s situation is spelled out through dialogue only over a long stretch of time, their marriage as a financial arrangement more evident in her chilly response to his incessant pleas for help kicking the habit, in their separate sleeping quarters, and in his reluctant isolation listening to loud music in their drab, unfashionable apartment.

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