Lorna's Silence (Sony Pictures Classics), the seventh feature film from the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, opens with a shot of a woman counting out money to a bank teller. The scene is set in typical Dardenne fashion, starkly and unsentimentally. This will be a movie about the acquiring and circulating of cash, and what the pursuit of it can do to those who will do anything to get it.
The woman at the bank window is Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant in the Belgian city of Liège. Employed as a laundress during the day, she goes home at night to a loveless green-card marriage. Her Belgian husband, Claudy (Jérémie Renier), is a heroin addict who's trying to get clean. Though he knows that their union is purely transactional—he gets money, she gets the promise of Belgian citizenship—Claudy is such a fragile, needy soul that he nonetheless turns to Lorna for help, going so far as to beg her to lock him in their apartment all day so that he won't be tempted to buy drugs. Slowly we learn that Lorna, in collusion with a mob-connected cab driver, Fabio, (Fabrizio Rongione), has a second ulterior motive for marrying Claudy: If he doesn't fatally overdose on his own, Fabio plans to help things along. Then Lorna will profit from her newly acquired citizenship by marrying a Russian gangster who's seeking his own naturalization papers, and she and Fabio will split the profits.
Here's the amazing part, a testament to the Dardenne brothers' unique power as filmmakers: From the moment the viewer is plunged into this harsh world of exploitation and human trafficking, we care absolutely about both the trembling junkie and the expressionless young woman scheming his demise. As in earlier Dardenne films, the plot is the stuff of melodrama (in their last movie, L'Enfant, a young man, also played by Jérémie Renier, sold his own baby on the black market), but the style in which it's told is formal, even austere. The dialogue and camerawork are rigorously naturalistic, with no expository speeches or flashbacks to catch the viewer up on the back story. There's no music on the soundtrack that doesn't arise naturally from the characters' environment (with the exception, in Lorna's Silence, of a scrap of a Beethoven sonata that surfaces in the final scene). One of the key plot developments happens off-screen, and it takes a few scenes for the viewer to put together what's taken place. Paradoxically, the effect of this seemingly offhanded approach is to establish an atmosphere of moral urgency that's almost unbearable for the audience to endure.
Lorna and Claudy's relationship, at first an economic arrangement driven entirely by need (hers for citizenship, his for drugs), gradually becomes something more as, touched by Claudy's struggle to give up drugs, Lorna begins to see Claudy not as a meal ticket but as a real and suffering person. But with every step she takes to save Claudy's life, Lorna endangers her own, as Fabio starts to ask questions about why the junkie she lives with is getting better instead of worse.
That's as much as you should know before going into Lorna's Silence, which combines Bressonian aesthetic rigor with Hitchcockian suspense. The Dardennes have a history of discovering hitherto unknown actresses for their female leads; the breathtakingly good Arta Dobroshi is no exception. Dobroshi's face is often impassive, but there's so much going on behind her eyes, she scarcely needs what little dialogue she's given. Jérémie Renier is the opposite of a newcomer: He's been acting in the Dardennes' films since he was a child, in La Promesse (1996). Here, his usually handsome leading-man physique looks hunched and gaunt, much older than his 28 years. Renier's so credible as a junkie who long ago jettisoned his dignity that you share at once Lorna's pity and her revulsion. What eventually takes place between this unlikely couple is something between a love story and a religious morality tale. The hauntingly ambiguous last scene, in which Lorna finds a place of temporary respite from the economic forces that have determined so much of her life, may be the saddest happy ending I've ever seen.