by Douglas Messerli
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (screenplay and directors) Le silence de Lorna (Lorna's Silence) / 2008, released in the US in 2009
As I described their work in two films (L'Enfant and La Promesse) in My Year 2004, the Dardenne brothers combine Christian symbolism with current social issues in a manner that is somewhat similar, as Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times suggested, to the work Robert Bresson (see my essay on Bresson in My Year 2000). And through the lens of immigrants and petty criminals, their work also resonates with the outrageous moral fables of Flannery O'Connor.
In this newest film, Lorna's Silence, two young Albanians, seeking a better life, find their way into the criminal machinations of a petty-mobster, Fabio. To obtain Belgian citizenship, Lorna (the photogenic Arta Dobroshi) has paid, with the help of Fabio and his cohorts, a young junkie, Claudy Moreau (played by the Dardenne regular, Jérémie Renier), to marry her. They have particularly chosen Claudy because of the probability that he will soon die, and Lorna will be free to marry a Russian, for a great deal of money, also desiring to become a citizen of the European Union.
The movie begins with Lorna depositing money into a savings account and inquiring about a loan. And throughout the movie one of the major actions of these characters, upon which the camera focuses time and again, is financial transactions, not only for daily purchases, but in Claudy's case—who asks that Lorna keep his paltry life savings—to keep his money safe from his drug habit. For both the temporary husband and wife see money as the route to their dreams and needs and are clearly willing to do most anything to obtain it. Lorna and her boyfriend Sokol, the latter of whom works as an itinerant day laborer participating in shady activities related to Fabio and his group, plan to use their money to buy a small food stand, one of the dozens throughout the city of Liège, where the film's action takes place. Claudy, who has been paid to marry her, however, suddenly decides to come clean, with her help, putting all of Fabio's plans in jeopardy.
Early in the film, Lorna appears quite impenetrable, a woman without sentimentality, willing to do almost anything to achieve her goal. But as Claudy sickens from withdrawal, she is effected by his passionate pleas for help, and gradually awards him some attention, ultimately delivering him over to the hospital for his cure. Now since he will not, apparently, die from his habit, she attempts to get a quick divorce by painfully bruising herself in almost comical runs against doorways and walls to prove that Claudy has beaten her. Her visit to the police station enrages Fabio, however, who now fears the police will suspect something and that it will further delay Lorna's marriage to the Russian.
Visiting Claudy, she demands that he strike her in the presence of a nurse. But the young man, despite his drug dependence, is a nonviolent being, insisting he would never strike a woman and unable to do so when he tries to enact her plot. It is this basic goodness in him that gradually begins to chip away at Lorna's coldly calculated composure. And when Claudy returns home, she chases the local drug dealer from her house and refuses to give Claudy back his money for a purchase, fighting him to the floor, an encounter that ends with the two engaged in intense sex.
The divorce decree has come through, but Fabio and the Russian cannot wait. As Lorna returns to her menial day job at a cleaners, Claudy rides away joyfully on his new bicycle, insisting Lorna keep his money in the envelope. In the very next scene we observe Lorna almost ritualistically folding and packing away his clothing. Claudy, so the police report, has overdosed, which we know was not an act of his own volition.
Soon after, as Lorna excitedly inspects her and Sokol's new café, she finds herself unable to climb the stairs. It is evident that she is pregnant—with Claudy's child! Her first instinct is the obvious one: she must abort it. But in the Dardennes' films, nothing happens quite like one might expect. At the clinic she panics even before they inspect her body. She bolts from the place, reporting to Fabio that she will have a baby.
Fabio insists she will have an abortion the next day, but at the meeting with the Russian Lorna is to marry, she dares to ask, through a translator, what he might think if she had a baby. He is outraged, ready to renege on the deal, until Fabio intercedes, insisting that she is not pregnant and will be checked over a doctor as evidence! Later that night, Lorna collapses in painful cramping, and is taken to the doctor's, where they declare that, indeed, she is not pregnant, and suggest further tests. A chance encounter with the nurse to whom she had first reported Claudy's beating of her hints to Fabio that she is about to tell the truth. And he rushes her from the hospital, insisting through an intervention with her boyfriend Sokol, that it would be better for her to return to Albania. In the end, both Lorna and Claudy have attempted, but been unable, to resist their own moral values.
It is only at this point that Lorna truly becomes silent, as a knowing and maternal-like glow suddenly appears on her face. Forced to return all of her money, with Sokol taking back his portion of their savings, she is left, it appears, with only a few Euros and the money she had hidden away from Claudy, which she now intends to use for the child whom she insists—despite the doctor's proclamation—will soon be born. As an associate of Fabio drives her away, it quickly becomes clear that he is not taking the route to Albania, but driving her to some out of the way spot to kill her.
Stopping in the woods to pee, she grabs a large rock and, returning to the car, dashes it into the head of her would-be assassin, racing into the woods without a planned destination. Eventually she finds a small shed, which she forces open and in which, after gathering wood, she starts a fire, speaking to her child as she acts, something to the effect of "Perhaps tomorrow we will find a friendly house, where they will feed us. Now we must sleep."
It is clear that, despite the desperation of her potential fate—she may be seriously ill and is without a single possession—Lorna is determined to live and bare her child. Is she deluded? Gone mad? Possibly. She has, however, clearly been morally redeemed, has seen the error of her life and regretted her actions. Like the mother of Christ, she has had, symbolically, to flee to Egypt. But Lorna must escape even before the child's birth, finding her own stable nonetheless. Miracles, so the Dardennes suggest, are known to happen.
Los Angeles, August 9, 2009