The Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, might not be as well-known stateside as Joel and Ethan Coen, or Larry and Andy Wachowski, or even the Weitz or Polish brothers. But you will not find more respected filmmakers internationally, and there's good reason why, as evidenced in "Lorna's Silence," the Belgian duo's meandering but compelling new bit of intense, utterly realistic cinema.
Interestingly, "Lorna" is probably the most American-audience-friendly film they've ever made; in many ways, its lightly pulpy story is the easiest for mainstream cinemagoers to tolerate, and even enjoy. (If they can deal with "slowness," that is.) It retains the directors' naturalistic, somber character-study approach, but marries it with a slightly sexier, almost noir-ish story.
Lorna, played by Arta Dobroshi, a young actress who looks a bit like a taller, more world-hardened Ellen Page, is an Albanian living in Belgium. She and her boyfriend Sokol dream of opening a snack bar -- the scenes of the couple's bright-eyed optimism when looking at the dreary space they wish to buy is lovely -- but they lack two very important things: residency status and money.
But Lorna has found a way, albeit a rather cockamamie one. A taxi driver/gangster named Fabio develops a scheme in which Lorna marries Claudy (Jeremie Renier), a gaunt, pathetic heroin addict who needs cash for his habit. (As the film opens, she and the hang-dog helpless Claudy are already married, and she is seeking a way out that might spare his life.)
This is just one part of an even grander plan that is to end with Claudy out of the picture, and Lorna remarried to a wealthy Russian seeking a European Union passport. It is a rather confusing scheme, and the filmmakers neglect to show us many key moments, yet once we're acquainted with the characters, the muddy picture becomes a bit clearer.
All the while, Lorna struggles with her role -- her love for Sokol, her sorrow over the likely fate of Claudy, her simple hopes. It is telling that the first shot of the film is money; cold, hard cash is the currency of dreams in the Dardennes' world, and their protagonists are always in need.
I was unfamiliar with star Dobroshi, and the young actress is quite good, creating a character who doesn't generally make the right decisions but certainly has her heart in the right place. Her co-star Renier is a frequent Dardenne actor, and he, too, creates a pitiful, but also lovable, figure.
It must be stated, though, that this is an expectedly oblique work, and in some ways a tad slight for the directors. It lacks the emotional knockout punches that figure in their strongest films. Yet it is still a worthy achievement, and an utterly unique look at the fringes of Europe.
Even lacking the power of much of their recent output, "Lorna's Silence" was another honored work for the Dardennes. It took home a best screenplay award at Cannes in 2008, and was a Golden Palm nominee. It's a sign of the international film community's level of respect that they've had two works take home the Palme d'Or -- Cannes' highest prize -- for "Rosetta" in 1998 and "L'Enfant (The Child)" in 2002.
At heart, "Lorna's Silence" carries the same level of desperation, of economic inequity, and despair that has won the brothers great acclaim. That it remains entertaining is a testament to the talent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and another reminder that they deserve to be considered among the world's most important voices.
Review: Three stars (out of four)
STARRING: Arta Dobroshi, Jeremie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione and Morgan Marinne
DIRECTORS: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
RATING: R for brief sexuality/nudity and language.
THE LOWDOWN: Lorna, an Albanian immigrant living in Belgium, becomes involved in a mobster's tangled web.