Often the most profound and gently moving dramas are the simplest. A complex, almost Byzantine backstory surrounds Lorna, the troubled central character of the Dardenne Brothers' chamber drama Lorna's Silence, and most surprising is that it neither weighs the film down nor interferes with its emotional magnetism, because the central arc remains so beautifully clean and concise.
Neophyte Arta Dobroshi stars as the title character, an Albanian woman in her mid-twenties, enmeshed in a bizarre immigration scheme in contemporary Liege, Belgium. She nurtures a simple aspiration: to move to Italy with her boyfriend, and purchase and run a snack counter. But those dreams have clashed with the economic realities of life in early 21st century Europe, compelling Lorna to take desperate measures. Prior to the story's outset, she turned herself over to the clutches of a slimy thug named Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), who set up an illegal marriage of convenience between her and an addict, Claudy Moreau (Jérémie Renier), in exchange for Lorna's Belgian citizenship. On the verge of obtaining the money she needs for the snack bar, Lorna makes extreme and desperate attempts to break out of the nuptials, by physically abusing herself (beating her head against the wall until it is bloody, pounding her shoulders purple with her fists) and formally accusing the bewildered Claudy of domestic violence. Meanwhile, Claudy endures a hellish withdrawal and Lorna feebly helps him through it. Physical intimacy develops between the pair, but not long after, Fabio forces Claudy into a fatal overdose. Lorna plans to leave the wiles of the immigration scheme, but Fabio has other plans for her -- plans that involve remarrying her to a Russian mobster in exchange for a hefty sum of cash. Before long, Lorna perceives the net that confines her and realizes that she won't escape from Fabio's clutches without a nasty struggle.
At the outset, the Dardennes hand us a character so wrapped up in herself, her desires, and her needs that she grows all but blind to the individuals ensconcing her -- and will do nearly anything to achieve her shallow ends. The drama hinges on an unforeseen, life-changing circumstance that dramatically recolors Lorna's perceptions of her place in the world and forces her to project care and compassion for someone other than herself, violently rejecting the pull of fate in the process. Working in tandem with the subtle Dobroshi, the filmmakers deftly pull off a graceful hat trick by achieving a complete tonal transition. For the first 40 minutes, we feel neither particularly sympathetic to Lorna nor accepting of her manipulations. But as she begins to develop a capacity for selflessness, our sympathies also shift -- to such a degree that the final act brings complete emotional investment in this young woman's life, tied to the hope that she will begin to make the right choices. Again, the slightly confusing details surrounding the immigration scheme scarcely matter; her direction and the need for an exit strategy suddenly become crystal clear. She has, in effect, grown up and must seize control of her life for the first time.
That this decision generates an adequate amount of suspense, given the threats posed by Fabio's minions, probably goes without saying. The film's sudden and slightly inconclusive denouement feels less successful. If anything, the last few scenes can be read as uplifting, but following the Dardennes' successful conveyance of Fabio as a malevolent and resourceful psychopath, the film almost demands a cleaner resolution. Fortunately, this flaw does little to detract from the marvelous emotional sweep of the drama that precedes it and the top-shelf performances from the entire ensemble.