Where most movies build toward a critical, character-defining decision, the films of Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne start with or even postdate them. What interests the Dardennes is not why people do bad things—or, less frequently, good ones. It’s how they live with their decisions after the fact, how they absorb and reconcile the consequences of their actions. Albanian immigrant Arta Dobroshi, the titular heroine of Lorna’s Silence, crosses her Rubicon before the film begins, and spends its latter stages trying to figure out how and if she can wade back across the current.
When she isn’t punching a clock at a greasy spoon, Dobroshi tends to husband Jérémie Renier, a junkie whose attempts to quit provoke more irritation than sympathy from his ostensible spouse. Renier thinks they’ve entered into a marriage of convenience in which he gets money and she gets Belgian citizenship, but he doesn’t suspect the looming twist. Once her six-month waiting period is up, Dobroshi and mob-linked cabbie Fabrizio Rongione plan for Renier to fatally overdose, either with their encouragement or by force. Then she’ll marry a wealthy Russian, pass on her citizenship, and use her fee to open a restaurant with boyfriend Alban Ukaj.
Dobroshi plays her character less as venal than pre-moral; she’s simply adopted an avenue of survival, and the fact that it involves the murder—or at least the involuntary assisted suicide—of another human being is incidental. It’s part of the transaction, like the loan she applies for in the movie’s opening scene. The scheming cabbie rationalizes Renier’s death, but her logic, if any, remains opaque. Breaking with the handheld subjectivity of previous films, the Dardennes keep the camera still and distant, giving the film an undercurrent of abstraction culminating in a final sequence that feels more like a fairy tale than social realism. The preference for material detail over psychology leaves the audience to fill in the blanks, and that strategy acts like a slow-burning fuse in the sequence that resolves Dobroshi and Renier’s relationship, as ambiguous gestures pop suddenly and shockingly into focus.
The Dardennes tend to make only incremental adjustments between films— shifting the scene 10 kilometers from their traditional Seraing to the industrial city of Liège counts as a major alteration—and to an extent, Lorna’s Silence feels like a refinement, even a repetition, of earlier themes. But the brothers are repeating themselves at such a high level that the redundancies are more than welcome.