Warning: this review is lousy with spoilers.
Lorna's Silence, the latest drama by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, opens with a close-up of money changing hands as the title character, a young Albanian immigrant, makes a cash deposit through a teller's window. That image epitomizes not only the movie that follows but also the other four dramas the brothers have gotten distributed in the U.S.—La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L'Enfant (2005). Terse and unsentimental, with documentary-style camera work and almost no music, their movies show a working-class world cruelly governed by financial transactions. Human beings are coldly appraised for their cash value—and then, more often than not, cashed in.
This happens in La Promesse, where a slumlord exploits illegal third-world immigrants, and in Rosetta, where a teenager desperate to escape her trailer-park existence gets her only real friend fired so she can take his job. One of the main characters in The Son is a juvenile delinquent who's strangled a toddler to death so he could steal a car stereo, and the morally challenged protagonist of L'Enfant sells his own baby boy on the black market. When his girlfriend learns, to her horror, what he's done with their child, he casually tells her, "We'll have another."
Taken as a whole, the movies offer a damning critique of global capitalism as it works its way down to the street and poisons the most intimate human encounters. But there's also a powerful countertheme at work, because all five movies deal with parenthood in one way or another. Of course, giving life to another person is a kind of transaction too, but as many parents will tell you, it can profoundly alter the way you see the world, skewing your personal calculus in favor of someone else in a way even love and marriage might not. For some people raising a child is their most dramatic experience in selflessness, and the sacrifices they make for their kids ennoble them in ways they never expected. The clash between two opposing impulses—greed and generosity—elevates the Dardennes' best movies above simple political cant.
La Promesse establishes this tension with considerable complexity right off the bat, because there are really two father figures in the story (played by two actors who turn up again and again in the later movies). Roger (played by the stout, potato-faced Olivier Gourmet) does a nice business milking immigrants who've been smuggled into Belgium to work the factories: he forges their work permits, warehouses them in a filthy apartment building, and hits them up for all manner of exorbitant surcharges as he makes his rounds, accompanied by his teenage son, Igor (15-year-old Jeremie Renier). When police raid the building one of the tenants plunges from a scaffold to the ground, and before he dies he makes Igor promise to care for his wife and infant son, who've just come from Burkina Faso to join him.
From that point father and son begin to grow apart, and the Dardennes build a fair amount of noirish suspense even as the movie's moral universe expands. Roger, knowing he can't report the death without exposing himself to the law, prevails upon Igor to help dispose of the body. The usually brusque father contrives to soothe the boy's conscience and bond with him emotionally, but his obvious self-interest only makes these gestures more grotesque. Eaten up by guilt, Igor decides to make good on his pledge and, unbeknownst to his father, begins looking out for the dead man's wife and child. His duplicity isolates him from both his father and the woman, who can't understand why her husband has disappeared. But in keeping his promise, Igor becomes a better father than his own dad.
The Dardennes gave Gourmet the chance to play a much more humane character in The Son, and his moving performance won him the best-actor award at Cannes. Using his given name, he plays another father, though this time his son has been murdered and the trauma has destroyed his marriage. Lonely and guarded, he throws himself into his job as a carpenter and gruffly schools his young interns in the exacting standards of his craft. When fate delivers into his hands the young killer, who's just been released after a five-year incarceration and fails to recognize him, the carpenter leaps at the chance to take him on as an intern. His motives seem as obscure to him as they are to us, but in the end any lust for revenge is trumped by his need to forgive—indeed, his need to be a father once again. It's the most hopeful of the movies, and probably the brothers' masterpiece.
By contrast, Rosetta and L'Enfant offer downbeat views of parenthood, both their young protagonists misshapen by their upbringings. Rosetta is repulsed by her single mother, a blowsy alcoholic who periodically sleeps with the manager of their trailer park in lieu of paying rent. Unlike Gourmet's carpenter, who finds comfort in his work, Rosetta doesn't care what kind of job she has as long as it puts money in her pocket. Her philosophical twin is Bruno, the petty thief played by Renier (by this time 24); when he gets in trouble with the law and goes to his mother for help, her casual response helps explain why Bruno can't distinguish between his own baby and the stolen goods he fences for a quick buck. He's almost an inversion of the character Renier played in La Promesse: Igor is a boy whose sense of fatherhood turns him into a man, whereas Bruno is a man whose selfishness renders him a boy.
Echoes of the Dardennes' earlier movies reverberate through Lorna's Silence (2008), which premiered last year at Cannes and, though more coolly received by critics than the brothers' previous entries, walked off with the best-screenplay award. Like La Promesse, it deals with the scams surrounding immigration: Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) has gained her Belgian citizenship with a paid marriage to a feckless junkie, Claudy (Renier once again), and now her underworld sponsor, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione, who had small parts in La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son), wants to kill her legal husband with an overdose (a divorce would be too slow and suspicious) and marry her off to a Russian immigrant who wants his papers. Lorna is the first woman since Rosetta to occupy the moral center of a Dardennes movie, and like the trailer-park waif she equates money with freedom; she hopes to use her payment for the second marriage to open a snack shop with her shiftless Albanian boyfriend.
Lorna certainly takes a businesslike view of her domestic arrangement with Claudy: as the sole wage earner, she sleeps alone in the bedroom of their apartment while he crashes on the living room floor, and their money is kept so separate that even a box of snack crackers she picks up for him must be paid back to the dime. But Lorna's feelings toward Claudy begin to change when he decides he's going to kick his heroin habit and she watches him suffer through an agonizing withdrawal. (Spoilers follow, so stop reading here if that's a problem.) In the movie's most far-fetched scene, Lorna tries to distract the recovering Claudy from an impending rendezvous with his dealer by offering him her body, which he eagerly accepts. But her motives aren't sexual: Claudy's physical ordeal has triggered in Lorna a mothering instinct so powerful that she sacrifices herself physically to protect him.
The ruthless Fabio has no instinct for anything except profit, and without telling Lorna he goes through with his plan to kill Claudy. In a show of the Dardennes' narrative craftiness, Claudy's murder (like the sale of the baby in L'Enfant) gets considerable buildup but then transpires offscreen; we learn of his death only when Lorna goes to a department store to buy him some burial clothes. (Who but the Dardennes would signal someone's murder with a shopping excursion?) Another bitter plot twist ensues when Lorna, happily surveying the shop she's bought with her ill-gotten payment, doubles over in pain and realizes she's pregnant with Claudy's child. This development jeopardizes Fabio's deal with the Russian, who wants a legal wife but not a legal child. Fabio insists on an abortion, but Lorna defies him, animated by a new purpose in life that makes the little snack shop seem trivial.
The creaky plot mechanics of the sexual encounter and the unlikely pregnancy might have gone unnoticed in a cheesy commercial thriller, but in films as fiercely realistic as these, such contrivances call more attention to themselves. That's a shame, because Lorna's sudden change of heart is a pointed example of what the Dardenne brothers' movies are all about. Capitalism may seem at times like a raging river, but every day, all over the world, people try to make it flow in the opposite direction.