When the Belgian Dardenne brothers, already well into their 40s, made a big splash with their third feature in 1996, it wasn’t because it broke particularly new ground in subject matter or style. Indeed, La Promesse was very much a throwback to the neorealism of The Bicycle Thief and such. What people responded to was precisely the fact that they’d seldom felt the same sort of unvarnished narrative gut-punch since that earlier era. And as filmmakers tended to write them back then, the Dardennes’ characters were almost invariably lower-class strugglers, often children or teens, for whom the bourgeoise relationship obsession of most exported French-language cinema would constitute a dream vacation.
Theirs is a very pure, dedicated, non-escapist ouevre—even extending to the many films they only produced, including the exceptional likes of Rust and Bone, Les cowboys, and the Romanian Graduation. Their own directorial films have begun to reflect Europe’s crises of immigration and ideology. The last, 2019’s Young Ahmed, was a chilling portrait of juvenile religious fanaticism that wasn’t particularly well-received, but struck me as very strong. The new Tori and Lokita, opening this Fri/31 at the Opera Plaza, feels closer to their familiar storytelling comfort zone, even if its protagonists are not natives but young African asylum-seekers.
Tori (Pablo Schils) is an 11-year-old boy who wound up in a suburban Belgian town at the end of a long road that began with his fleeing persecution as a supposed “sorcerer’s child.” Due to his age, he seems to be further along in the citizenship process than Lokita (Joely Mbundu), who’s just 16 but has the bearing of someone much older. She needs to—no one else is looking out for her, or Tori. The authorities doubt her backstory, including the two of them being siblings. In fact, we have no idea whether they’re truly related either, until the very end.
But they have an unshakable, mutually supportive bond, and a commitment to stay together, which includes their delivering pizzas (and drugs) from a local restaurant. Meanwhile, Lokita is trying to support her mother and siblings in Cameroon, even as smugglers working under the cover of a church extort funds still owed for her prior passage. She displays remarkable poise despite pressure and predation from every direction—including demands for sexual favors. The institutions which should be protecting her from harm seem more interested in finding excuses to throw her out of the country.
As if such daily hustles and humiliations aren’t already enough, at one point Lokita is forced to work off her debt by being taken to a remote, locked, windowless warehouse, where she’ll tend a marijuana greenhouse for weeks on end. Her phone taken away and she has no way to communicate with Tori, a separation that makes them both frantic with worry. It is a testament to the boy’s desperate resourcefulness that he’s able to orchestrate a reunion. But as they deal with criminal elements unconcerned with our protagonists’ welfare, let alone their kinship, this is a story you know will not end well.
As ever, the Dardennes (Luc and Jean-Pierre) use an unfussy economy of means to tell a story that never plays as melodrama, yet is suffused with peril. (They’ve managed to attain the same high anxiety even in a story like 2014’s Two Days, One Night, for which Marion Cotillard got an Oscar nomination as a wife and mother whose crisis is that she’s downsized out of her factory job.)
While this is a harsh tale, it is nonetheless always engrossing, with excellent performances from the two leading performers (neither of whom have acted professionally before), and deftly sketched supporting ones. It does pack a wallop. Still, one of the Dardennes’ many virtues is their ability to deliver brute realism without making you feel there’s any virtue-signaling masochism going on in either portraying or watching it.
Another impressive French-language drama. opening Fri/31 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, is The Five Devils by Lea Mysius, who’s had a hand in writing recent features for Claire Denis, Andre Techine, and Arnaud Desplechin. This complicated construct is set in an Alpine small town where the scenery is spectacular but the human attitudes rather less so: Eight-year-old Vicky (Sally Drame) gets called “toilet brush” for her bushy hair by all-white classmates. Her parents are locally-raised fitness instructor Joanne (Adele Exarchopoulos) and firefighter Jimmie (Moustapha Mbengue), who landed her as a Senegalese immigrant.
In physical presence and firm self-possession, Drame’s heroine may recall the indomitable child protagonist Quvenzhane Wallis played in Beast of the Southern Wild a decade ago. But Vicky is not immune to her ill-treatment by peers, or to undercurrents at home, particularly when dad’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) comes for a stay. That visit upsets the domestic balance, not least because Julia and mom were high school gymnastics teammates some years back. Their ties turn out to go considerably deeper than that, as Vicky finds out by using some kind of sorcery (she’s a gatherer of organic substances and maker of potions) to time-travel into the adults’ past. Invisible to others, her spying is somehow detectable only to teenage Julia, which ultimately triggers a disaster that alters several lives’ course.
This handsomely crafted, accomplished feature is really just a knotty relationship drama with themes of racism and homophobia. You could argue that the supernatural aspects which enable the initially-confusing flashbacks are just snake oil, a way of providing somewhat gratuitous genre intrigue to material we might otherwise find too bleakly familiar. But it works, to a large degree, making for a somewhat messy but also potent end result.
By contrast with the above films, Maggie Peren’s German The Forger (opening Fri/31 at the Smith Rafael Film Center) is actually based on fact: Cioma Schonhaus’ memoir of being a Jew in wartime Berlin who was able to “pass” as Aryan youth, living a pretty high life at oblivious Nazis’ expense while trying to orchestrate passage to freedom for himself and others. But this slick movie, which already played a couple local festivals, somehow winds up seeming more manipulative and false than many a pure fiction.
It’s hard not to take a certain pleasure in the sheer chutzpah of our hero (Louis Hoffmann), as he fearlessly survives in the 1940 capital—even after the rest of his family has been “deported”—by posing as The Enemy. His brazenness extends even to the point of dressing down Nazis who demand his ID, pretending to be their SS officer superior. When ingenuity fails, there’s also some suspense in the occasional snare he manages to escape by sheer dumb luck.
But The Forger treats all this as a sort of sexy period caper, with cute young actors and a general sense of naughty joie de vivre. It’s an effortful insouciance you might gag on a bit, particularly when a written postscript reveals what happened to pretty much all of Schonhaus’ fellow travelers—something more powerful than anything in the preceding two hours. You cannot make a movie shadowed by the Holocaust without acknowledging some of that horror. But Peren’s film does its damnedest to try.
Other films (perhaps the best being Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 Europa Europa) likewise dramatized Jews hiding out or “passing” in the Nazi era. But they vividly conveyed the constant, nerve-jangling threat of arrest, torture, death. The Forger aims to be fun, without achieving any kind of ironical or black-comedy slant. It’s a well-made movie, but in the end I found its tone-deafness rather revolting.