Written by: Nathan Bartlebaugh
I love the work of the Dardenne brothers. The Belgian siblings responsible for films like The Son, The Child and Rosetta specialize in quiet, close-quarters observations of human behavior. While their pictures can occasionally be slow and methodical, they are full of rich characterization and a stark sense of reality that drive home the moral implications of the narrative. They are not often easy films to watch, as much for the pacing as for the less than savory choices made by the characters central to the story. The Silence of Lorna follows these same guidelines but ventures from the path by expanding beyond the claustrophobic camera work and micrcosmal drams to present a compelling portrait of a woman struggling with the consequences of her actions.
In an unexpected change of surroundings for the Dardennes–all of their previous pictures have taken placen in the industrial town of Sierang– Silence picks up in the city of Liège, Belgium with Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a 30 yr old Albanian woman who is running a marriage scam with a recovering drug addict named Claudy (Dardennes repeat offender Jeremie Renier). Lorna works for the thuggish Fabio(Fabrizio Rongione) who has arranged her faux marriage with Claudy so that he can bring about the hapless man’s death (or simply wait for him to overdose) and Lorna can marry a Russian in need of a passport. Motivated by money, Fabio has no care for the pathetc Claudy or the determined Lorna, who wants to marry her real love Sokol who she will open a cafe with via her earnings from this scam. Where Claudy stands in all of this is that he desperately wants to get clean, but he’s a lost soul through and through; even he seems to know that his life is hanging in the balance of that one future fatal overdose that stands unwavering on the horizon.
Lorna struggles with her part in the arrangement and is irritated by the hap-hazard Claudy who wanders about their apartment like a child, inept and obnoxious. She seeks for another way out of the marriage that might avoid his death. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the film she antagonizes Claudy in hopes he will beat her and leave signs of domestic abuse. He is gentle and meek, and he refuses. When he declines, Lorna turns and begins to bang her head into the glass window repeatedly. Later, she smashes her elbow into a door-jamb until it is discolored.
The film follows this storyline in two sections. The first is dedicated to Lorna and Claudy and the slowly gathering care that the former is developing for the latter. The second section takes place after a pivotal event in the storyline and follows Lorna into her set-up marriage with the Russian. She is carrying enormous guilt and another secret that has caused a significant impact on her soul. The Dardennes aren’t so forthcoming with the specific details of what the secret is, but it is only partially important. Watching Lorna struggle with her place in the world and her part in the incident with Claudy is the heart of the film, and the film’ structure allows the audience to observe a unique thing; the softening of a human heart and the slow burn of a blossoming conscience.
Silence has some truly outstanding cinemtography, although none of it is very flashy. The camera peers around doorways, corners and from across the street, taking in the characters like a casual voyeur. When many of these conversational scenes involve two people discussing the murder of a third, or document a fight of significant emotional magnitude, the audience is made to feel like an intruder. This is important in terms of the picture’s effect. None of these people seem to be putting on a show for us and it isn’t a movie where our enjoyment is important or of concern. Instead, it’s designed like reality with the one element that real life doesn’t provide; an omniscient view point. We watch Lorna struggle, see the results of her bad choices, consider her meager dreams, and have the opportunity to witness her attempt at making amends.
All of it is far more compelling than I expected, and the naturalistic performances, particularly that of Arta Dobroshi as Lorna, are terrific. There are no specific villains here–even Fabio–but mostly just victims who aren’t yet aware of their victimization. Lorna isn’t a completely devious person, and in truth, she seems like a mostly decent woman who is keeping her head down and pushing through a questionable situation without taking a moral inventory. Renier, who played a man who sold his son on the black market in The Child, is good too as the forlorn drug addict who can’t get his act together and is leaning for support upon the one woman who has been assigned to makesure he will fall down.
This could have been a very clever thriller, I suppose, but it is not. Instead, it’s a dramatic exploration of a woman who is actually surprised to find that she has empathy and care left in her, and that when she discovers a measure of love, the force threatening it is not external but from within. The Dardennes allow their film to gather a cold and dreary atmosphere and the silence on the soundtrack mimics the strong resolve of Lorna in the second half of the film. What she is protecting is more than just the secret she carries; she’s also sheltering and shepherding the glowing embers of her own flickering humanity.