BThe Elgic filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have long been favorites at the Cannes Film Festival, with awards such as the Palme d’Or for Rosetta (1999) and The child (2005), Best Screenplay for Lorna’s silence (2008), a Grand Prix for The child with a bicycle (2011) and Best Director honors for Young Ahmed (2019). As for their latest feature, Tori and Lokita, which once again finds these masters of humanistic filmmaking addressing the plight of young people, took the special 75th anniversary award when it premiered at Cannes in May. It’s an unprecedented string of accolades from what remains, for better or worse, the world’s most celebrated film festival – a reminder that over three decades, the Dardennes have quietly proven themselves remarkable documenters of the human condition.
Newcomers Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu are completely engaging as Tori and Lokita, a young boy and a teenage girl from Africa trying to make a new life for themselves in Belgium. We come face-to-face with Lokita in an off-screen interview with an immigration officer who is skeptical of her claim that Tori is her younger brother. “When my mother died,” Lokita explains hesitantly, “my uncle said it was my brother’s fault; that he still had wizard powers and had to be killed. We hid. Then we left.”
Lokita’s story is strange and magical, and her anguish is palpable. Gradually, it becomes clear that her precarious situation depends on convincing the authorities that she is in fact the sister of an endangered child. Regardless of the factual inconsistencies, there is clearly a core truth to what Lokita is saying – that she and Tori are bound together by bonds as strong as blood, and the prospect of separation is unthinkable for either of them.
Within this enigmatic opening we find the same mixture of down-to-earth realism and fairytale lyricism that signed Lorna’s silence (2008), a rather underrated work – the grim and the Grimm – which remains one of my favorite Dardenne films. We then see Lokita sleeping on a bus, and then sleeping in her bed, exhausted from the stresses of this life. In contrast, Tori is a ball of energy, coaching Lokita on questions about their past, teasing her to hide and singing with her at the local Italian restaurant. Their song is from Sicily, a moment of sweet harmony brutally interrupted as we cut to the downstairs kitchen, where chef Betim (Alban Ukaj) is making drug deals between food orders, paying the pair as delivery mules. He also demands other favors, mixing threats with offers of money that Lokita desperately needs to send home. And then there are the human traffickers who also want half a kilo of meat from this vulnerable, yet resourceful, resilient couple.
Despite the film’s urgent and contemporary subject matter (the plight of “unaccompanied foreign minors” at a time of global turmoil), the Dardenners are careful to put character first and politics second. In fact, in their joint director’s statement they describe Tori and Lokita as primarily the story of “an infallible friendship” which “ignorantly” has become “a condemnation of the violent and unjust situation experienced by these young people in exile in our country, in Europe”. Sure enough, it’s the little interactions between the pair – those tactility of their relationship, the palpable affection that sparks between them, the protectiveness of their unity – it’s the heartbeat of the film. Even as the narrative shifts from domestic drama to nail-biting, exhausting suspense, their closeness remains our focus.
It is a credit to Dardenne’s technical skills that the third act of Tori and Lokita is almost unbearably tense without straying into the realm of melodrama. As usual, the directors avoid non-diegetic music, leaving it to Benoît Dervaux’s hand-held cameras to put us right there in the moment when the threat level rises. While some may balk at the prospect of the Dardennes flirting with the thriller genre, Schils and Mbundu keep the film’s feet firmly on the ground, delivering a powerful emotional punch built in equal measure on empathy, admiration and anxiety.