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    Lorna's Silence

    Class dismissed

    The Dardenne brothers — creators of class-conscious "realist" art films up to now — make "Lorna's Silence," a movie-type movie with a little less grit and a little more glamour.


    What belies the simplistic description of the Dardenne brothers' "documentary" style of filmmaking is the element of parable that forms the moral glue holding in place the "social message" of their films. The "social message" tag is also, by itself, an equally reductive description. In movie-geek parlance, "documentary," in this case, simply means the visual suggestion of being led by the caprices of a handheld camera, while the "social message" part implies an audience of ready sympathizers to whatever cause is being put up for examination. Another word often used to describe the films of les frères Dardenne (those brothers from Belgium) is "realism," which simply translates as "about poor people."

    Original title: Le silence de Lorna.
    Written and directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne.
    Cast: Arta Dobroshi, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Alban Ukaj, Morgan Marinne.
    Cinematography: Alain Marcoen.
    Edited by: Marie-Hélène Dozo.
    In French with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Cinema Village
    22 E. 12th St.
    (212) 924-3363

    And yet the films play less like socialist tracts and more like modern-dress miracle plays adapted towards contemporary issues of unemployment, immigration, xenophobia and worker exploitation. In a Dardenne film, matters of conscience have direct real-world consequences and confessions of sin are a deterrent to illness and death. Work is not only a means to financial livelihood but also a redemptive force. Indeed, few filmmakers can film work — the cleansing, creative, manual power of making stuff — with as enthusiastic a focus as the Dardenne brothers. And yet they're equally enthusiastic in their forgiveness of petty thieves and layabouts.

    What doesn't figure into their philosophy is the individual's desire to have it both ways: to do the right thing and collect blood money; to do the right thing and honor a corrupt institution (even if it's your parent). Having it both ways is an option routinely denied to the Dardenne protagonist, and the dilemmas they face usually demand of them a more distinct moral commitment — or else a haunted conscience. In film after film, we're constantly being asked to review the "cost" of a human life, whether it is that of an illegal worker, an infant, a friend, or a junkie. That we live in a world that needs reminding is what is behind the Dardennes' success. Their genius is not so much in describing new truths but in reminding us of old ones that we've forgotten.

    Lorna's Silence  
    In their new film, "Lorna's Silence," the Dardenne brothers revisit old terrain while forging new ground. Lorna, (Arta Dobroshi) an Albanian immigrant involved with the mafia, secures her Belgian citizenship by marrying Claudy, a junkie played by Jérémie Renier. The mobster responsible for arranging the false marriage, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), insists that Lorna remarry a Russian mobster willing to pay hard cash to become a Belgian citizen himself. But in order to do that, they must terminate her first marriage. For Fabio, the option of staging a fake overdose was the reason they chose Claudy in the first place, and, as it turns out, a far less messy solution than going through the trouble of even a speedy divorce.

    Returning to the more traditional dramatic structure largely eschewed since 1996's "La Promesse," "Lorna's Silence" also mirrors that film's preoccupations. Except, instead of Belgian citizens exploiting immigrant workers, it is Lorna and the underworld of arranged marriages and bought citizenships that exploit Claudy. His value as a human being is reduced to his Belgian citizenship, an attitude underlined in the rather deadpan refrain: "He's just a junkie."

    The film practically starts out as romantic comedy, even flirting with the clichéd bread-n-butter of '80s situation comedy. The premise seems tailor-made for the genre-oriented viewer: girl meets boy, girl marries boy for legal citizenship, girl moves in with boy only to find his junkie habits infuriating ... and yet oddly endearing. Still, this is Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne we're talking about, and the only lasting comedy that follows is the comedy of human folly. Lorna, having reluctantly promised to help Claudy get clean, tries to avoid the pre-agreed-upon overdose by attempting to procure a speedy divorce. Her solution is to fashion herself as a battered wife, and the scenes where she begs, cajoles and negotiates with Claudy to hit her are as psychologically elaborate as they are farcical. He may be a junkie and a thief, but he would never hit a woman.

      Dobroshi is perhaps the most glamorous Dardenne protagonist. Her husky-voiced, heavily accented French seems more in keeping with a Dietrich or Garbo than with someone who actually works in the backroom of a dry cleaner's.
    Of course, it doesn't end there. "Lorna's Silence" marks a few firsts for the Dardennes, and how successfully they come off depends on how willing one is to accommodate their growth as filmmakers. Using 35-millimeter film for the first time, the intimate, hyper-vigilant "documentary-style" choreography of their handheld 16-millimeter is traded in for a camera that is mostly stationary and trained at a respectful distance. I suppose this merely continues the progressively cooler and more cerebral temperature of their films. With its pale, washed-out palette, "Lorna's Silence" is mostly removed from the earthy saturated color and dizzying swatches of red that one finds in "La Promesse" or "Rosetta." This, of course, is a different movie with different goals. However, there are a few consequences.

    Unlike many of their protagonists, we are never allowed to really identify, or even sympathize, with Lorna during the crucial early parts of the film. She's walled from us, kept at a remove. We follow her but we don't recognize her the way we do Rosetta or Roger in "La Promesse." And not only is she a borderline a-hole but she's also a little boring. While she is a good actress, Dobroshi simply doesn't have the charisma of Dardenne regulars, like Jérémie Renier or Olivier Gourmet ("The Son"), who could do terrible things and still have us forgive them. She is also a much more stylized actress than they are. She lacks the signature naturalism of her predecessors, and isn't above underlining actorly flourishes.

    Lorna's Silence  
    Moreover, Dobroshi is perhaps the most glamorous Dardenne protagonist. Her crop-haired beauty suggests the inscrutable even as it plays singleminded determination. Dobroshi's face is often like a closed door through which no part of her inner life is allowed to escape. Her husky-voiced, heavily accented French seems more in keeping with a Dietrich or Garbo than with someone who actually works in the backroom of a dry cleaner's.

    In a way, Lorna travels further than any other Dardenne character. She's the "heroine" of the film rather than the everyday invisible sort of person that we've grown accustomed to. As a result, the matter-of-fact filming of her love scene with Jérémie Renier (another Dardenne first) asks a great deal from the audience in the way of credibility. And yet, I can't exactly say that Dobroshi is completely ineffective, or that her performance is not ultimately moving.

    Jérémie Renier is perhaps the only actor who could conceivably have made Claudy into a junkie worth loving. He's an endearing, easily sympathetic presence on screen, yet the lack of chemistry between the two actors seems to rob the film of its intended impact, which is only fully realized after some thought. He is also not given enough screen time to establish his character beyond that of a needy junkie.

    "Lorna's Silence" is perhaps the Dardennes' most traditionally cinematic film, and yet it is unmistakably a Dardenne film. The parable is intact and even exposed. The abrupt shifts of pacing, and even some of the incredible contrivances of plot, seem to add to an impression that is light years from the quasi-documentary "realism" that they've been celebrated for. It's in the last reel that the textures and colors of the film suddenly change, and we realize what had really been at stake all along. What began as something of a romantic comedy veers into full-on fairy tale, making it impossible to decide whether "Lorna's Silence" is merely an atypical Dardenne masterpiece or if it's a somewhat flawed transitional film. If you had asked me the night I saw it, I might've leaned towards the latter. Now I'm not so sure.

    JULY 31, 2009

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