Luc Dardenne wrote that he and his brother Jean-Pierre don’t know why Olivier takes in the murderer of his son in their 2002 film The Son, it just happens. That’s the premise, and one must give a creator his/her premise. The majority of the film examines the personal consequences of that decision. Lorna’s Silence is nearly the same, but this time, we do not know exactly what the titular character has agreed to. We know that it involves sham marriages in order to make money in the hopes of owning a snack bar with her boyfriend. But that comes out slowly and vaguely. As with The Son, the pivotal decision has been committed to, and we get to watch the consequences of a life-changing agreement.
Arta Dobroshi, who plays the tormented, guilt-ridden Lorna, is in nearly every scene of Lorna’s Silence, and what a character study it makes for. The Dardennes trademark style, influenced by the Italian Neorealists, undergoes a notable change here and pigeonholes the audience purely as spectators where they used to be participants. We follow Lorna in long takes, usually in medium- and long-shots, not in subjective point-of-view shots, allowing us to see Lorna’s environment while keeping our distance from her. The visibility of the noir-tinged surroundings reflects both Lorna’s fractured psyche and emphasizes the immigrant experience that Lorna’s Silence occasionally seeks to comment on. Lorna is constantly lost in her new environment, never fully fitting, like a piece of furniture of an improper color or a place setting from a different set. Just as importantly, the distant look at Lorna allows us to observe what guilt can do to a person. This is a watcher’s movie, and by extension, a thinker’s movie.
Lorna may have married Claudy (Jérémie Renier), a heroin addict, purely for politics—he was paid to do it, she wants Belgian citizenship—but she is falling for him anyway. We slowly realize that Lorna is in league with mobsters who plan to give him a fatal OD so she can marry a Russian gangster and make money. What happens leaves Lorna guilt-ridden in the most extreme of ways, one kept hidden from the viewer before it is revealed with the same casual-shocks as the off-screen plot point that led to it. The whole thing is handled not with sentimentality and grandstanding, but rather quiet desperation, in which Lorna navigates financial uncertainty as she moves toward the most bittersweet ending one could imagine. She slowly finds within her the desire to be free from economic perils and the human-trafficking remedy and instead trying to take care of the imaginary literal symbol of her guilt. It’s the final, humanist realization in a film that is slowly but constantly letting in optimism and morality where penny-pinching objectivism once stood.
It’s a testament to the Dardennes and their stars that, from the beginning, you care about both Claudy and Lorna. You don’t see their marriage to be a particularly loving one, but both Lorna’s conflict between love and money and Renier’s earnest attempts at sobriety are touching, realistic details, expertly handled, that not caring is something only the mobsters running the show could muster. The chemistry between the two is the film’s highlight, and watching Lorna try to make Claudy better while knowing she could be endangering herself is heartbreaking. Dobroshi does not need much dialogue to appear conflicted, which the film’s deliberate—though not terribly slow—pace and observational style further showcases.
Thus, what Lorna’s Silence feels like is a nearly two-hour epiphany, in which Lorna discovers the relative weight of love, guilt, and ambition, of economy, and grasps to make right of it while she still has time. Everything slowly falls into place, as it must be doing in Lorna’s mind, and the morally gray opportunism says a great deal about perilous times. Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say, and indeed, in Lorna’s Silence, the worst people are Machiavellian but even the best are opportunists. What separates them is the ability to block out their heart. Indeed, what begins as an austere portrait of criminal financing and incidental morality emerges instead as a portrait of humanism that is always in danger of being quelled by external political forces—treatment of immigrants, economy, drugs, and more—and how it operates on the most intimate of scales. The best of us let our emotions in, hopefully before it’s too late.