Since turning from documentaries to fiction in the mid-1990s, Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have crafted a series of stunning if bleak dramas about Europe's outcasts: the unemployed, the homeless, an underclass of illegal immigrants, black marketeers, teenage hoods and thieves.
In Lorna's Silence, the Dardennes' austere but oddly hopeful fifth film, an Albanian woman (the mesmerizing Arta Dobroshi) tries to make a new life for herself in the Belgian city of Liège. Lorna shares an apartment with Claudy (Jérémie Renier, from the Dardennes' The Promise and The Child), a junkie who has fear and failure in his eyes. The pair are husband and wife: Lorna married Claudy to gain her Belgian citizenship, a plan orchestrated by the mobster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). Either by overdose or "accident," Claudy is a goner — and then Lorna can be wed to a Russian who likewise seeks European papers. Thousands and thousands of euros will change hands.
But there are complications to Fabio's scheme: There is Lorna's Albanian boyfriend, Sokol (Alban Ukaj), with whom she wants to open a snack bar. And, more profoundly, there is Lorna's guilt: She doesn't want Claudy, who is trying to get clean, to die.
If the plot sounds like a whole lot of melodrama, the Dardennes — using 35mm film for the first time — make it all unstintingly real. There is (until the film's beautiful coda) no musical score. There are no fancy camera moves. It is up to the actors to engage us, to compel us — and Dobroshi does, with naturalism and fierce grace.
The Dardennes track the actress as her character goes to work (at a dry cleaner), reluctantly conspires with Fabio, commiserates with Sokol and worries about — and abets — Claudy.
Dobroshi's Lorna almost trembles with a conviction that everything is going to turn out right, even as she sabotages the cash-fueled designs of Fabio and his bosses.
On one level, Lorna's Silence is about the uneasy commingling of the estranged and the established, of the poor and the middle class, in the new Europe. But on a deeper level, the Dardennes' film offers a portrait of a fragile yet determined woman set on making a home for herself in the world, even as that world unravels before her eyes.