‘Lorna’s Silence’ says all that it needs to
The first image in “Lorna’s Silence’’ is a wad of bills being counted. We don’t see money all that often thereafter, but its presence at the beginning of this sad and solemn drama is striking. This, the movie makes clear, is what it’s all about: the petty greed that has loosened a moral universe from its moorings.
The woman counting those bills is Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a slender, almost mannish young Albanian immigrant in Liege, Belgium. She’s newly legal through her marriage to Claudy (Jérémie Renier), but within minutes we understand that the marriage is a sham, that Claudy is a hopeless heroin addict, that Lorna wants nothing to do with him.
The film, written and directed by those acolytes of poetic social realism Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, lays out the subterranean economy of the New Europe and, by extension, the world. Lorna, who hopes to open a snack shop with her boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj), has paid a thuggish middleman, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), to arrange the marriage in exchange for Belgian citizenship; after the divorce, she in turn will briefly marry a Russian gangster (Anton Yakovlev) so he can get his own papers.
Fabio profits from this “La Ronde’’-like charade of unions and identities; Claudy gets paid off in money and junk. When he’s no longer necessary, he’ll be given an extra special dose. “Lorna’s Silence’’ is about the effect this plan has on the soul of the woman who hopes to gain by it.
If you’ve seen any of the Dardennes’ earlier dissections of Europe’s invisibles and untouchables - “Rosetta’’ (1999), say, or “The Son’’ (2002) - you’ll know to expect a formal rigor and a cool, arm’s-length gaze that masks boundless compassion. There’s a bit more plot than is usual for the brothers, and a neatness to the ethical stakes that lessens their usual sense of the human mystery. It’s a very good film nevertheless, and in Dobroshi it has a face that passes through every conceivable shade of sorrow.
Claudy, it turns out, doesn’t want to play by the script. He senses in Lorna not a user but a carer, and he vows to clean himself up for her. The early scenes between the two are painful to watch, so naked does Renier make Claudy’s physical and psychic distress and so coldly does Lorna harden her heart in response. He’s a needy child, and she’s trying with all her might to be a grown-up.
The film’s drama, doled out in sparse details, lies in how sympathy slowly chips away at Lorna’s pose of self-interest, ennobling and ruining her at the same time. At a certain point, you may realize she’s virtually the only woman in the movie and that the men belong to a different species altogether - a sort of blank-eyed post-modern shark. (All except for Claudy; he’s a failed shark.) The Dardennes are saying it’s the Fabios and their invisible overlords who keep Europe running with murderous black-market efficiency.
What’s a woman to do? Lorna’s response, as her heart cracks open against her will, is to embark on a path as mystical as it is foolish as it is understandable. The Dardennes resist the expected cliches: The climactic scenes gather force and purpose and the movie seems headed for a breakthrough of some sort, but then it glides softly and unexpectedly to a halt. The final credits are scored to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, a work that also “ends too soon’’ yet has, by the end, said everything it has to. So, too, with this movie, which wants to leave us not with its heroine’s silence but our own.