"Lorna's Silence" starts out as a strong and probing examination of a woman caught up in a terrible plot. She's tortured by her decisions, tries to right some wrongs, and we are moved to empathize for her. Then the movie wanders off a cliff.
If ever one wanted a case study in how to tell European films apart from American ones, this movie would serve nicely. If the problem with a lot of our films is that they route themselves down obvious and unimaginative avenues, then theirs is that they so cherish being circumspect and oblique.
In "Silence," the movie shifts dramatically when something unexpected occurs. I can't tell you what it is, but suffice to say that it is the fulcrum around which the movie turns.
Unfortunately, filmmaking duo Luc and Jan-Pierre Dardenne -- brothers who co-write and co-direct their films, such as "L'enfant" -- underplay the moment to such a degree that we barely even realize something momentous has happened.
One moment, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is walking down the street, and the next she's folding clothes. It seems like a normal, everyday edit from one scene to the next. Except the movie has taken a detour into the wasteland.
Lorna is an Albanian immigrant involved in a sham marriage to a heroin junkie so she can get her Belgian citizenship. It's a prearranged deal, with both Lorna and Claudy (Jérémie Renier, in a twitchy and effective performance) set to get a big payday after she obtains her legal status and they divorce. Then, she will turn around and do the same thing with a powerful Russian mobster to make him a citizen.
For Lorna, it's just a job. Her real boyfriend is Sokol (Alban Ukaj), a countryman and thief. Their dream is a rather conventional one -- to open an eatery of their own. Meanwhile, Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) is the local crime boss who watches Lorna carefully to make sure nothing threatens the deal with the Russian.
Only it turns out Lorna's partners think it's safer to kill Claudy and stage it as a drug overdose rather than divorce him, which could arouse the suspicion of the authorities.
Lorna sets out on a dangerous path to fake domestic abuse by Claudy, which will ensure a quick divorce. But once Claudy goes through rehab and kicks his habit, it makes her choice harder.
The first hour or so is gripping stuff, with a strangely intense relationship between Lorna and her would-be husband. His craving for pity is a palpable thing, and the waves of compassion and disgust that wash across Dobroshi's face are wrenching to watch.
But then, "Lorna's Silence" makes its turn into increasingly mystifying territory.