Belgian film-makers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have long been darlings of the Cannes film festival, with prizes including Palme d’Or wins for Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005), best screenplay for The Silence of Lorna (2008), a Grand Prix for The Kid With a Bike (2011) and best director honours for Young Ahmed (2019). As for their most recent feature, Tori and Lokita, which once again finds these masters of humanist film-making addressing the plight of young people, it took the special 75th anniversary prize when it premiered at Cannes in May. It’s an extraordinary run of accolades from what remains, for better or worse, the world’s most celebrated film festival – a reminder that over the course of three decades the Dardennes have quietly proved themselves remarkable documenters of the human condition.
Screen newcomers Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu are utterly engaging as Tori and Lokita, a young boy and a teenage girl from Africa attempting to make a new life in Belgium. We meet Lokita face-on in an interview with an offscreen immigration officer who is sceptical about 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 a sorcerer’s powers and had to be killed. We hid. Then we left.”
Lokita’s story is strange and magical, and her anxiety palpable. Gradually it becomes clear that her precarious situation is dependent upon convincing the authorities that she is indeed the sister of an endangered child. Whatever its factual inconsistencies, there is clearly a core truth to what Lokita says - that she and Tori are bound together by ties as strong as blood, and the prospect of separation is unthinkable to either of them.
The Dardennes put character first and politics second, describing the film as the story of ‘an unfailing friendship’
Within this enigmatic opening we find that same blend of down-to-earth realism and fairytale poetry that underwrote The Silence of Lorna (2008), a rather underrated work – the grim and the Grimm – that remains one of my favourite Dardenne movies. We next see Lokita asleep on a bus, then asleep in her bed, exhausted by the strains of this life. By contrast, Tori is a ball of energy, tutoring Lokita on questions about their past, teasing her into games of hide and seek, and singing with her at the local Italian restaurant. Their song is from Sicily, a moment of sweet harmony that’s rudely interrupted as we abruptly cut to the kitchen downstairs, where chef Betim (Alban Ukaj) does drug deals between food orders, paying the pair as delivery mules. He also demands other services, blending threats with offers of money that Lokita desperately needs to send home. And then there are the people smugglers who also want their pound of flesh from this vulnerable yet resourcefully resilient pair.
Despite the film’s urgent and contemporary theme (the plight of “unaccompanied foreign minors” in a time of global unrest), the Dardennes are careful to put character first and politics second. Indeed, in their joint directors’ statement they describe Tori and Lokita as being first and foremost the story of “an unfailing friendship” that has “unwittingly” become “a denunciation of the violent and unjust situation experienced by these young people in exile in our country, in Europe”. Sure enough, it’s the tiny interactions between the pair – the tactility of their relationship, the palpable affection that sparks between them, the protectiveness of their unity – that are the heartbeat of the movie. Even when the narrative shifts from domestic drama to nail-biting, gruelling suspense, their closeness remains our focus.
It’s a credit to the Dardennes’ technical skills that the third act of Tori and Lokita is almost unbearably tense without straying into the realms of melodrama. As usual, the directors eschew non-diegetic music, leaving it to Benoît Dervaux’s handheld cameras to put us right there in the moment as threat levels increase. 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 hefty emotional punch built in equal measure on empathy, admiration and anguish.