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Review: Suspenseful and heartbreaking, ‘Tori and Lokita’ is the Dardenne brothers’ best in years


There’s a scene near the end of “Tori and Lokita,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s strongest work in nearly a decade, that illustrates the difference—the gulf, really—between empathy and empathy. 12-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) and 17-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu), African-born immigrants who arrived in a bustling Belgian town, are running for their lives, as almost everyone has been. long. Injured and exhausted, Lokita makes her way to a remote stretch of road and flags down a passing car. The driver slows down, looks at her with concern, and then, blankly assessing the situation, quickly backs away from her.

Our empathy with Tori and Lokita at this point is complete, but I think the Dardenne brothers, without waving their fingers too emphatically about it, want us to see that driver disappearing into the distance and admit that at least part of our identification lies with her. . . The moment flashes by, but the implication lingers as vividly as anything else in this fast, urgent, and palpably furious film. We lose something when, either through self-preservation, ignorance, or indifference, we distance ourselves from the suffering of others. And the Dardennes, occupying their usual zone between clear moral parable and crude realistic thriller, rebuke this apathy in the best way they know how, telling a story we can hardly move away from.

One of the unifying qualities of his highly acclaimed work, and from “La Promesse” (1997) and “The Son” (2002) to “L’Enfant” (2005) and “Two Days, One Night” (2014), truly you can’t go wrong with any of them: it’s their ability to identify essential truths about a character’s life within a narrow time frame and exceptionally tense set of circumstances. Tori and Lokita may be imaginary, but there’s a strange truth to almost every moment we spend in their company, a sense that their lives unfold within, but also beyond, the realm of the camera. The Dardennes sketch out a few details in passing: Lokita emigrated from Benin, Tori from Cameroon, but trust our imagination and curiosity to fill in the rest. We believe in Tori and Lokita, in part, because there’s so much about them that we’ll never know.

It is significant that the film opens with an invasive and haunting close-up of Lokita as she anxiously stumbles her way through a series of lies. Belgian authorities are questioning her about her relationship with Tori, who was accused of being a “girl witch” in Cameroon and here she was granted political asylum. Hoping to gain refugee status, Lokita claims that she and Tori are sisters separated years before, but happily reunited during their trip abroad. The details may have been made up, but in every way that counts, the Dardennes suggest, Lokita is telling the truth. Forged under mysterious but undoubtedly harrowing conditions, the bond between her and Tori is stronger than blood.

There is a sibling bond between the characters played by Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu in “Tori and Lokita”.

(Sideshow and Janus Films)

They spend most of their time together in the children’s hostel where they sleep and also in the Italian restaurant whose owner, Betim (a chillingly banal Alban Ukaj), uses them as couriers in his drug operation. Her wages consist of a measly euro and leftover focaccia, though Betim gives Lokita some extra money after he sexually abuses her in private. Outside the restaurant, Lokita is regularly harassed by her dealers, extortionists who pose as local church workers and steal her money before she has a chance to send it to her family. Locked in cruel cycles of debt and servitude, Lokita dreams of a better life; she longs to secure her papers, find a steady job, and make a home for herself and Tori.

That dream, as elusive as it is, flickers wistfully at crucial moments of respite, especially when Tori and Lokita sing karaoke at the restaurant in an effort to get the crowd going. It’s her most enjoyable work and the film’s most charming moment: as their voices sweetly mingle, Tori gazes lovingly at Lokita, as she smiles protectively at him. They will take turns protecting and saving each other over the course of the movie. It can be said that they have already had a lot of practice.

So when Lokita is sent to work in a secret cannabis factory for three months, in a sweltering room with no company or contact with anyone but Betim’s ruthless associates, it’s Tori who boldly leaps into action. The steps she takes to find Lokita and be with her, to bring some warmth and comfort to her ordeal, show amazing courage and resourcefulness; they also lead to breathtakingly suspenseful passages and fast, brutal violence. While the Dardennes are rightly praised for their low-key artistry and philosophical depth, it’s not pointed out often enough that they go on to make some of the most gripping action movies around.

A hidden boy looks through a screen on a wall.

Bravery leads Pablo Schils’ Tori through a hellish existence.

(Sideshow and Janus Films)

The formal devices that brought filmmakers to international fame decades ago—the restless, off-kilter camerawork (here by Benoît Dervaux), irregular editing (by Marie-Hélène Dozo), the absence of non-diegetic music—have ceased to feel for a long time. as devices. That’s partly because they’ve become fully absorbed into the 21st-century tradition of realist cinema, and partly because they feel like natural entry points into the lives of characters who are constantly on the move, barely having a moment’s notice. to breathe.

Tori may be small, but we see, in Schils’ physically agile performance, what a sadly necessary asset he can be when it comes to hiding in dark corners and getting through tight passages. Whether she’s running down a busy street or pedaling like mad on her two-wheeler, Tori is a spiritual kin to several fast-paced young men from previous Dardennes films (notably “Rosetta” and “The Kid With a Bike”), who they run as if their life depends on it because it usually does. But unlike some of those other leads, Tori and Lokita in particular aren’t faced with a sudden crisis of conscience as they fight to survive and stay together. Their options are too limited, their worlds too closed; it’s like they can’t even face the burden of a moral dilemma.

The unremitting desolation of their ordeal feels surprisingly forceful even coming from the Dardennes, who, despite their rejection of sentimentality and elevation, have always held a sincere belief in the possibility of redemption. Without giving away what happens, that possibility is suspended here as the Dardennes follow their characters’ story to its logical, unvarnished, and utterly devastating end. Some might see this as an active denial of Tori and Lokita’s dramatic agency; Still others might ridiculously accuse the Dardennes of exploiting their characters in the name of art. But I think the filmmakers’ pessimism is inseparable from their compassion, and their compassion is inseparable from their anger.

That anger has many targets, some of which loom large in this story in the abstract: the immigration crisis, anti-black racism, crime and poverty, bureaucratic intransigence, the innate tendency of systems and people to take advantage of the young and vulnerable in their midst. — and none of which is limited to the Belgian towns and cities where these filmmakers make their remarkable discoveries. The Dardennes are too honest to hide their despair over the state of the world. They also know that the expression of that despair can be their own little expression of hope.

‘Tori and Lokita’

Not qualified
In French with English subtitles
Execution time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts March 24 at Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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