Lorna’s Silence was one of the films featured at the Toronto International Film Festival that made me envy those able to attend.

The Dardennes are among my favorite filmmakers. How many artists can you think of who have a long list of movies without an occasional misstep along the way? The Dardennes have made a string of solid, masterful, thought-provoking films that are excellent inspirations for those who like to dig deep into post-viewing discussions.

So I’m extremely pleased to be able to offer this review of the film, sent in by Kenneth R. Morefield. Now… I just need to find a way to see it for myself.

In his essay “The Brothers Dardenne: Responding to the Face of the Other,” film critic Doug Cummings argues intriguingly and persuasively (with copious references to the brothers’ interviews and journals) that the face-to-face encounter plays a pivotal role in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Whether he is referencing interviews the brothers made in which they invoke the Genesis story of Abraham not killing Isaac or referencing journal entries in which they acknowledge their fascination with F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Cummings provides a philosophical and moral framework through which to approach the brothers’ body of work — one that makes their work more immediately accessible to those new to it, while enriching the appreciation of those already familiar with Rosetta, L’ Enfant, Les Fils, and La Promesse.

It was impossible for me, having been made aware of the Dardennes’ fascination with Sunrise, to watch Lorna’s Silence without thinking about how it relates not just to other Dardenne films but also to Murnau’s. Lorna is, after all, planning to kill her husband — and like the husband in Sunrise, she finds that entertaining the idea of killing someone in the abstract and actually killing the human being who stands before you are two very different propositions.

Lorna has entered a marriage of convenience in order to obtain Belgian citizenship. Once a certain amount of time passes, her accomplices will kill her husband (who, we are reminded, over and over again, is only a junkie), faking an overdose. Lorna will then be able to marry a Russian to get him citizenship, for which she will be paid enough money to start a little snack bar with her boyfriend. As the film begins, Lorna’s husband Claudy (played by the impeccable Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) is trying to kick the habit, and try as she might to depersonalize and despise him, Lorna’s own humanity won’t allow her to not reach out to him. While Claudy’s complete and utter dependence on Lorna is psychologically taxing to her and distasteful to us, Lorna’s inability to harden her heart is the real mystery of the first half of the film. Does she just feel sorry for him, or has something changed as a result of her entering into a husband/wife relationship (albeit an unconsummated one)? For whatever reason, she begins to explore alternatives with her associates in an attempt to have the unsuspecting Claudy spared. If she were to get him to agree to a divorce (with him at fault), would they agree to spare his life? If she were to pay additional expenses out of her end of the profits, would that make up for the hassle created by her compassion?

These sorts of questions and themes are quintessentially Dardenne-ish, and for that first half to two-thirds of the film, one feels firmly situated in a Dardenne film, fully expecting the conflicts to come to a climax at a moment of face-to-face confrontation between the morally conflicted character and the object of his (or in this case her) past or intended violence. Then something happens for which I was not prepared. The key face-to-face encounter comes but the film does not end with it. Unlike with La Promesse or Le Fils (or Bresson’s Pickpocket, for that matter), where the point seems to be to get the character to a pivotal encounter which is left somewhat ambiguous (because the dramatic changes are internal), Lorna’s Silence shares with L’Enfant (to a lesser degree) and Sunrise a desire to look beyond the transforming conversion moment and examine what the implications of that transformation will be.

I think this structural difference largely accounts for some of the mixed reviews and general confusion surrounding Lorna’s Silence that have been coming from Cannes and TIFF viewers. For some, the film might not seem very Dardenne-like, but it appeared to me to be a logical progression from the earlier films (which tended to end at the climactic, transformative moment) through their more recent work (L’Enfant, which pushes past the transformation and shows the costs) and perhaps marks a further, more mature (I do not use the word at all condescendingly or tritely) development in the brothers’ examination of the ethics of human relations.

Lorna’s Silence is by no means an easy film, in part because while it shares Sunrise‘s faith in an undetermined, autonomous human soul capable of change, it differs from Murnaus’ film in that the two humans who have the face-to-face encounter do not exist in a (relative) vacuum. To be transformed in a yet fallen world means not only aligning oneself with the meek, the weak, and the poor in spirit, it means doing so with the knowledge and expectation that the world’s response to such transformations is more often a cross than a pat on the back.

To say more would be to risk spoilers, and there are elements of Lorna’s situation at the end of the film that could just as easily lend themselves to a cynical or jaded interpretation as a triumphant one. Is Lorna a Joan or Mary figure at the end — a sort of beatified angel of mercy (for the innocent) and death (for those who would prey and have preyed on them) — or is she the victim of a self-torturing scrupulosity brought on by a glimpse of an ideal she cannot obtain or sustain? The title of the film might suggest the latter, though I think the English translation lends itself a bit more to such an interpretation than does the vaguer, more elusive (and possibly allusive) French title Le Silence de Lorna. The “silence” of the title could refer to Lorna’s failure to speak and warn Claudy at a key moment, but it can also refer, I think, to the silence she must endure — the silence connoting the absence of the human voice and face that she can no longer, paradoxically, ignore as well as the silence of God who, perhaps, appears as indifferent to her stumbling attempts to love as He seemingly was to her intention to kill.

My Grade: A-

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.