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Lowlifes and bottom-feeders, compellingly captured

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The lowlifes and bottom-feeders in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's fine if taxing crime film Lorna's Silence do not behave like traditional movie characters. They are puzzling, frustrating, inscrutable — and best handled as discrete collections of body parts rather than as functioning, goal-oriented protagonists and antagonists. Surface is all: A drug addict's taut forearm muscles, a hustler's bald spot, and a mail-order bride's flat chest register on screen with a kind of limpid clarity seldom granted to the faces and bodies of the starriest Hollywood stars. The shoulders, profiles, and backs of heads in Lorna's Silence are more weirdly expressive than the perfectly lit, shallow-focus close-ups typical of major studio filmmaking.

The Dardennes' insistence on their characters' corporeality is necessary early on, because the people in the film remain stubbornly opaque for the first hour. Consider Lorna, played by Arta Dobroshi. Dobroshi may look like Ellen Page's androgynous, beaten-down sister, but she's far less expressive and open — in fact, she's so skilled at draining her face of emotion that even after the story kicks in, it's never clear what forces send her through her day. Her husband Claudy (Jérémie Renier) — whom she treats like an unwelcome, irksome roommate — is, in spite of his shaking, quavering requests, just as mysterious.

After some raw exchanges between this makeshift couple, we discover that Lorna's tense cohabitation with Claudy is just the first part of a crude, crass scheme designed to exploit her new status as a European citizen and potential mail-order bride. However, as the scheme progresses Lorna — to her (and our) shock — discovers that she cannot behave as mercilessly as her criminal co-conspirators; a sudden, careless act of compassion simultaneously focuses her emergent spiritual crisis and puts her in grave danger.

While not as forceful or exciting as 2005's L'Enfant, Lorna's Silence reaffirms the Dardennes' important status as global filmmakers (with U.S. distribution — hooray!) whose art addresses the damaging effects of unchecked market forces on human compassion. Their conclusions are seldom comforting or easy to parse, and the Dardennes' fluid handheld camerawork reinforces their characters' trapped and desperate circumstances. (By the way, isn't it nice to see a filmmaker use a handheld camera to capture intimate moments instead of using it as a tool to manufacture intensity?) But flashes of hope and beauty crop up from time to time — the vibrant yellows and blues of a phone booth, a bicycle ride through the streets, a breathless account of a potential snack-bar space.

The problematic ending is equal parts urban legend and fairy-tale wish fulfillment, but overall the strongest passages in the film express a feeling of deferred religious grace comparable to the uncompromising chronicles of despair found in Flannery O'Connor's crueler short stories.

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