Lorna’s Silence, the 2008 film from the Dardenne brothers, recently played a limited theatrical engagement here in Dallas. It’s always a pleasure to see their work on the big screen, and this film is certainly no exception to the rule. Here, as in the brothers’ four previous full-length fiction films, we find characters situated in a stifling urban milieu, a protagonist placing herself in situations that quickly spin wildly out of her control, and a resolution that resists easy categorization.
Hearkening back to their 1999 film, Rosetta, the brothers again focus their camera on a woman, this one an Albanian immigrant hoping to earn Belgian citizenship through a sham marriage to a drug addict. Lorna has to make several difficult choices along the way, but all of them, at some level, come back to money.
The film opens with the sounds of a bank while the opening credits pass in white over a black background. When the first image finally appears, we see a stack of money changing hands. Knowing the Dardennes, it’s difficult not to think of Robert Bresson’s final film L’argent at this point (their 2007 short film Dans l’Obscurité makes explicit reference to Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar). The narratives end up quite differently, but the two films share a decidedly pessimistic view of money’s role in modern society.
Finances remain the driving factor in Lorna’s Silence through most of its runtime, as people constantly grapple over money, offer money to others, buy cigarettes, get paid for marriages, and take out loans. Everything in Lorna’s life is a transaction—from prescription drugs to a marriage partner, and even to her own identity as a Belgian citizen. Indeed, Lorna’s drive to leave Albania for Belgium is explicitly never spoken about in the film, but all indications are that she came with a boyfriend that they might make a better life for themselves—better as in more economic choices available to them.
The Dardenne brothers highlight this transactional nature of Lorna’s life. People are constantly exchanging cash, a striking series of scenes when so much of modern commerce takes place without coins and bills. Money becomes for Lorna (and all of the other main characters in the film), a means to achieve her dreams—new freedoms, a new place to live, a new job, and a new identity altogether. However, what becomes clear through the film is how little of this dream she actually attains. She has indeed moved from Albania and has a job, but at the price of both freedom and an identity that’s her own. Lorna becomes an indentured servant, and finds that while her location has changed, her options remain dangerously limited.
Because of her situation, Lorna seems distant, cold, and inhuman as the film begins. She has decided to pursue life as transaction, to essentially sell herself in the hopes of a better existence. However, when she actually has to come through on her end of the bargain, she finds some shred of human feeling and conscience left in her. That flame within her stands in danger of being extinguished early in the film, but as she continues to fight the forces arrayed against her on behalf of another human being, she comes alive. Love is the evidence of life in such a world, and Lorna’s struggle reveals that such love comes only with much sacrifice.
Lorna’s life seems to ask: What does it look like to live a truly human existence in the midst of a life-sapping environment where one’s existence is dictated by transactions? Considering life in purely (or even in primarily) economic terms is no life at all, the film seems to suggest. In highlighting this reality, the Dardennes have placed the proverbial finger on the pulse of modern society. Even contemporary religious communities sometimes define themselves in primarily economic terms, using phrases like “Jesus paid our debt in full” and “count the cost” as descriptors of spiritual realities. What kind of hope can we have when those who speak about hope (religious or otherwise) do so in terms that, were they taken at face value like they are in this film, would sap the life right out of their communities?
In typical Dardenne fashion, the film concludes with more of a question mark rather than a period: How can an actual human being live and love in such an economically driven world that knows nothing of either life or love? Does such a world even allow for humanity? And finally, what does it say about us if we’re living comfortably and carefree in such a dehumanizing world?