Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), the young Albanian immigrant at the center of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence, is both the newest addition to the twin auteurs’ gallery of spiritually anguished outsiders, and a subtle departure from it. Like the title character in Rosetta, the last film by the Belgian filmmakers to focus primarily on a woman’s consciousness, she is presented at first with an almost defiant disregard for audience empathy, a sullen pixie trudging impassively in a Liège laundry and scarcely bothering to hide her contempt for her recovering-junkie husband, Claudy (Dardenne axiom Jérémie Renier). Gradually, Lorna is revealed as part of a green-card scam run by shady cabbie Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), and the marriage as just a way for her to obtain Belgian citizenship.
The plan is for Claudy to die from an overdose so that Lorna can move on to the next sham marriage, until she and her beau, Sokol (Alban Ukaj), can afford to settle down—a trafficking of identities that, in its reduction of lives to cargo, is just a notch above the baby-bartering in the Dardennes’ previous film, L’Enfant. Emotion throws a wrench into the machinations when Lorna, touched by Claudy’s effort to kick his heroin habit, begins to see in him a human being rather than an accessory in a scheme. Her attempts to save his life, which include scrambling for a divorce by forging a domestic-violence scenario and culminate in a sudden bout of lovemaking, bring them closer, yet the outcome of Fabio’s plan (boldly presented as a casually jarring narrative ellipsis) ensures that Lorna will have to tread the path of redemption by herself.
Lorna’s Silence earned a screenwriting award in Cannes, and, indeed, the plot machinery is more visible here than in the brothers’ other gritty fables. The film is not without contrivances, yet to brand it somehow less “pure” because it has intimations of genre or, God forbid, a joke or two—as when the exasperated heroine, in need of tell-tale bruises, slams her own head on a wall because Claudy can’t tighten his hand into a fist—is as reductive as criticizing Roberto Rossellini for supposedly straying from his neorealist roots for melodramas with Ingrid Bergman. Lorna’s closing moments incidentally are somewhat reminiscent of Bergman’s at the end of Europa ’51 in their suggestion of the slender line between finding grace and losing your sanity, but it’s in contrast to L’Enfant that the film most stirs and surprises.
Both pictures chart their protagonists’ movement toward moral-spiritual epiphanies in a harsh and drab world, though where the feckless young father in the previous film enters adulthood—and, implicitly, society— by realizing the consequences of his actions and accepting responsibility for them, the same awareness leads Lorna to reject the society she’s become adapted to, escaping from city to forest and from rough vérité to uneasy fairy tale. There’s a feeling that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what to make of the character’s conflicting instincts, a feeling reinforced by the distance added to their usually suffocatingly intimate camerawork. Even if they can’t always enter their heroine’s psyche, however, the Dardennes remain deeply moved by her struggle: Her impulsive actions may ultimately lead more to madness than to flight, but they also show that Lorna’s silence—her passive role in cycle of dehumanizing exploitation—can be broken.