Some films are, for lack of a better word, glacial; they're immense, dense, frozen and seemingly immobile. And a film like that can affect the viewer in one of two ways; either you bounce off the frozen surface of it, shut out and shunned -- or you find the frozen surface to be a mirror, showing you things within your own reaction to it. With its naturalistic tone and bleak outlook, the new film from the Dardenne Brothers, Lorna's Silence, is certain to provoke those kinds of polarized reactions. I found myself more in tune with the film and what it was reaching for, and was impressed by the familiar Dardenne methods and concerns and themes (which won their film L'Enfant the Palme d'Or in 2005 and Rosetta the same award in 1999) in Lorna's Silence. At the same time, I can also understand the somewhat lukewarm reception for Lorna's Silence; it's only at Cannes that you hear people saying "Oh, not another hyper-realistic drama set in the gulfs and gaps between old and new Europe. ..."
We follow Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) through her day -- phone calls, work, dealing with life. And that life gradually makes its shape known to us. She's an Albanian, living in Belgium; she's entered a marriage of convenience with Claudy (Jeremie Renier) that's not actually convenient at all, as Claudy's a junkie who's trying to quit; his needs and demands hang heavy on her. But then Lorna has a meeting with Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), and things take a very different turn, as he explains that they have to be sure that Claudy's death looks like an accident. ...
Once Lorna's a Belgian by virtue of her marriage, we come to learn, the expectation is that Claudy will be removed from the picture and Lorna will marry a Russian gangster so he can have the same Belgian citizenship rights Lorna gained by marrying Claudy. Lorna, working towards the modest dream of opening a snack bar with her boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj), is playing along -- to a point. She thinks she can make a divorce happen without anyone getting hurt (or, rather, with only herself getting hurt; Lorna's plan to speed up the divorce proceedings is a harsh one), earning her money and marrying the Russian without Claudy having to die. Claudy knows that Lorna's married him for an end -- he's been paid once, and expects to be paid again after the divorce -- but he doesn't know about the Russian, or how the plan involves his demise expediting matters.
The unexpected criminal element in Lorna's Silence gives the film a slick sheen of plot points to ride on, giving the film a spine of expectation that the Dardennes don't normally rely on: Will Lorna save Claudy? Will she be able to save herself? But Lorna's Silence isn't a thriller; and the Dardennes explicitly reject and avoid every scene you'd have in a more conventional version of this story; Lorna's Slience isn't about whether or not Claudy will die, but about how and why Lorna will live.
And Dobroshi's performance is up to the challenge; it's unforced but fully committed, and she manages to make you feel for a woman who's willingly signed up for a horrible series of tasks. It may be hard to reconcile who Lorna is at the beginning of the film with who Lorna is at the end ... until you think about what it is she's been through, and briefly, sympathetically contemplate what that might do to her. Dobroshi's work is naturalistic, but it's also dramatic, especially in Lorna's more frenzied moments.
And yes, Lorna's Silence could be dismissed as more of the same from the Dardennes -- the themes, the ideas, the close-set proximity of hopeless powerlessness and the power of hope. Then again, when you consider how rarely these topics are handled well (if they're handled at all) in film, you can hardly accuse the Dardennes of narrowness of vision or artistic myopia. (Or, put another way; I'll be ready to ignore well-made films about the poor and downtrodden when there are no more poor and downtrodden in the world outside the theater; after the high-class gloss and emptiness of something like Vicky Christy Barcelona, Lorna's Silence hits you like a well-needed slap in the face bringing you back to reality.) Lorna's Silence is not going to win the Dardennes a record third Palme d'Or in 2008, but that hardly seems the point; it's a strong film from strong film makers, and while most of the talk around the film at Cannes is about the split opinions people have, it's worth noting that they're still talking about it.