Cannes: Two African-born teenagers attempt to build a life together on the streets of Belgium in this searing indictment of societal indifference.
“Tori and Lokita” is the angst movie the Dardenne brothers have ever made, a distinction that shouldn’t be taken lightly in the context of the filmmakers who have spent the last three decades carving out moral dramas from a great precision from the sufferings of the most destitute in Belgium. dispossessed people.
Like most of the duo’s works, “Tori and Lokita” takes advantage of the irreducible nature of human dignity against the ever-increasing apathy of human civilization. Like much of their work – including Palme d’Or winner “Rosetta” and 2002 masterpiece “The Son” – the film’s threadbare story revolves around effectively parentless children whose the need for support drives them towards danger. And like the best of their work, which this sobering return to form represents from its curious foreground to its furious final beat, its premise tightens until even the simplest actions are endowed with a breathtaking intensity.
But it’s the anger that sets “Tori and Lokita” apart from the rest of the Dardennes films — the anger that’s been implicit in the social commentary from the start, but is explicit here. This fire is dull at first, incandescent at the end, and still spits its rage on those of us on the other side of the screen. Awful shit of one kind or another happens to unworthy people in all the Dardennes movies, and there, by the grace of God, we go. This time, however, we have only ourselves to blame.
The audience is complicit from the foreground, which adopts the perspective of a Belgian immigration administrator in a way questioning a Cameroonian teenager about her past. The unblinking frame holds for what feels like several minutes as the anxious Lokita (Joely Mbundu) struggles to remember simple but esoteric details about her family’s home and the school she attended with her adorable younger brother, Tori (Pablo Schils). Over time, we begin to understand why: Tori was granted political asylum for some horrible reason that’s not worth discussing here, but Lokita will be deported if she fails to convince the authorities that she and Tori are blood relatives. And they may not be.
Initially, the only thing we know for sure about Tori and Lokita’s bond is that they love each other – they’re all they’ve got. They live together in the same shelter for “unaccompanied foreign minors”, they deliver drugs together to the same dreadful drug dealer (a cook who operates out of the basement of an Italian restaurant), and they give the most of the money they earn goes to the same violent smuggler who helped them get to Belgium in the first place.
Not only would you think Tori and Lokita are related, but the bond they share is so vivid and vivid you’d think the actors playing them were too (in keeping with Dardennes lore, there’s no false note between these two performances in co-direction). He’s the eager, smart, sweet younger brother who just wants to make the most of every situation; she’s the stoic and responsible older sister who does everything she can to protect Tori from the barbarism of the world around them, even though he’s already seen too much with his own eyes. There is a common history between them, no matter how far back it goes. You can hear it in the songs they sing together and see it in the way they look at each other as they cross a busy street.
Tori and Lokita rarely let each other out of sight – until, that is, Lokita fails to convince the powers that be that she and Tori are siblings, and takes a temporary job at home to maintain the drug dealer’s grow house in exchange for fake immigration papers. The location of the facility is kept secret and the people operating it are as cruel and abusive as the dealer himself, but Tori and Lokita will not be denied. They’ll find a way to see each other no matter what, and if things go wrong enough, they risk everything to create a better arrangement.
While this all sounds unusually sweet for a Dardenne Brothers film (even with the violent smugglers, abusive drug dealers, and inhumane policies), the reality is that it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, there’s a warmth shared between Tori and Lokita that’s almost unheard of in the filmmakers’ work — a tactile sense of love that Benoit Dervaux’s free-form camera work and natural lighting render with an impenetrable truth. This sentiment rings even stronger due to the Dardenne brothers’ deceptively flippant direction, which turns basic actions (e.g. Tori breaking into the greenhouse to make contact with Lokita) into heartrending expressions of devotion.
Every new iota of information we learn about Tori and Lokita’s individual and shared pasts only makes it more poignant and overwhelming that these two children have to love each other so much just to survive in a society that doesn’t care about each other. ‘them.
On the other hand, this sweetness serves as an igniter for the moral fury of the film, all the more pronounced as the action overflows on the public. The very first scene of the film describes this story as a story that we are complicit in having allowed, and the Dardennes have never let us go. “We” can mean any number of things, of course, but “Tori and Lokita” is so haunting and raw because of the way it cleverly confuses institutional crises with individual failures, blending one into the another with the imperceptible evidence of a close-up magician.
Immigration laws may be determined by a small elected handful, but they are enforced daily by the impartiality of millions. Here, the brutal genius of the Dardennes parable-like plot is expressed through the casualness with which it involves its characters. Hours (or even days) after the credits roll, you may find yourself flashing back to the final minutes of this film as if to commemorate them; you may find yourself replaying even the most accidental encounters in your mind and again being horrified by all the different moments when tragedy could have been avoided.
This investigation will invariably begin with a particular moment, but it will soon return to that very foreground, as each scene in this laser-cut 89-minute film becomes an indictment of the one before it. The film’s fleeting joys become all the more bittersweet, and its frequent barbarities – which some might find exploitative, despite the inviolable honesty of the Dardennes’ storytelling – betray how they could have been avoided. Most overwhelming of all is the rare instance that Tori and Lokita could have helped themselves, had they had as little respect for others as the others seem to have for them.
The Dardenne brothers may not be known for hashing words, but “Tori and Lokita” are unparalleled pioneers of unhashed words. The final moments of their latest film hit you in the stomach with several lifetimes of unresolved outrage, as the social ills they’ve spent the last 30 years trying to dramatize into visibility have only gotten worse. – much worse horrors, and hopefully much harder to find. “Tori and Lokita” ends much like it started, with someone facing the camera, aware they’re being watched but with no good reason to believe they’re being seen.
Never before have these implicitly political filmmakers so blatantly let a moral parable turn into mad polemic matter, but it’s easy to see why the Dardennes might want to avoid what little subtlety they have left as they move through the twilight of their shared career (itself a testament to the strength siblings can bring to each other). Bordered by an even greater degree of futility than any of the duo’s previous work, “Tori and Lokita” harbors no illusions that shedding a harsh light on such horrific stories will be enough to make the world a better place, and yet – in the least uncertain terms imaginable – it leaves us with an indelible glimpse of the darkness that surrounds them.
“Tori and Lokita” premiered in competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.