The fate of Adriana La Cerva was hotly debated among viewers of The Sopranos. Girlfriend to impulsive gangster Christopher Moltisanti, she was killed for becoming an FBI informant. That she tried to stay righteous and protect her family, even as she collaborated, earned her nothing in the end. The staging of her off-screen death was appropriately tragic, yet it inspired hope that she escaped a cruel demise. Although her death was shrouded in ambiguity, it was likely that Adriana would have lived longer had she stayed quiet.
As The Sopranos used the Mafia as a jumping off point for its greater family drama, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence is built around the skeleton of a crime story. The film’s award-winning script brilliantly combines a plot about a woman stuck between gangsters, a junkie and her conscience, with the observational, social issue storytelling for which the Dardenne brothers are renowned. Like Adriana La Cerva, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) finds herself at the center of an ever-confining unlawful enterprise.
A gangster named Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) arranges for the Albanian Lorna to be married to Claudy (Jérémie Renier) so that she can gain Belgian citizenship. The plan is to kill the heavily drug-addicted Claudy so that Lorna might marry a Russian mobster, who also wants citizenship and will pay both Fabio and Lorna for their efforts.
The Dardenne brothers’ last feature film, L’enfant, devastatingly explored the effects of a human-for-cash transaction (the selling of a newborn baby), and Lorna’s Silence continues and complicates a similar dramatic situation. In order for the watchful Fabio’s plan to succeed, Lorna needs to regard Claudy’s life as worthless and accept that her own life is worth the dollar amount she hopes to earn from the Russian. The directors employ longtime collaborators, cinematographer Alain Marcoen and camera operator Benoit Dervaux, to follow Lorna’s journey from deceit to truth.
Silence is indeed a constant factor within Lorna’s predicament (and Dobroshi’s performance). She abides Claudy’s withdrawal-fueled restlessness and illness because she knows that doing so is a necessary step towards achieving her dream of owning a snack shop with boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj). When Fabio tells her to do something, she mostly restrains protest, realizing he is her connection to the mobster with money. So Lorna goes about her routine, and as in all of the Dardenne’s work, the camera observes the character’s activity with intense interest but no intervention.
The camera is less challenging and frenetic in this film when compared to Rosetta or Le Fils. This technical choice reinforces the fact that these filmmakers exercise precise visual control in order to fit the content of the scripts, despite the seemingly spontaneous cinematography.
The film truly becomes compelling when Claudy makes a serious effort to stop using drugs and Lorna must interact with him more fully. Although the pace of these sequences feels a bit uneven, Renier’s fearless performance lends a kind of realism to the changing relationship between the two characters. Since Lorna’s immediate and future goals depend on Claudy’s death, the scenes wherein she aids his recovery are remarkably complex.The script considers the many ways in which Lorna attempts to resolve her mounting problems, and this is a process complicated by her slowly growing affection for Claudy and her desire to see him live.
Such moral decision-making is found throughout the Dardenne filmography (for example, fulfilling the titular promise of La Promesse and forgiving a son’s murderer in Le Fils) and Lorna faces a few such pivotal moments here. The most significant turning point for the character is when she finally realizes that she has no control within the transactions, and that she is just another property being negotiated. I will not spoil the plot by describing how she arrives at this conclusion or how she copes with the burden of her sins, except to say that a hint of magical realism that enters the picture’s third act echoes a familiar Dardenne motif (entering the forest from the city) to extraordinarily emotional effect.
In her attempt to control dire circumstances, Lorna has much in common with the desperate Adriana La Cerva. Whereas The Sopranos took several years to develop Adriana into a flawed, guilty, yet lovable tragic heroine, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne need less than two hours to immerse the audience in Lorna’s world. The script for Lorna’s Silence utilizes their peerless sense of conveying psychology through behavior and action (and occasionally dialogue). While their earlier films might be classified as allegories that reinforce existing mythic and moral tales, by the last frame of Lorna’s Silence, the sensation for the audience is that of having seen new folklore wrought through cinema, still arguably best as a silent art.