Since the early 1990s, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been crafting a unique body of work marked by deep humanistic impulses and an insistence on the fundamental dignity of those on the lowest or most disdained rungs of the social ladder. They return again and again to similar themes and subjects, but almost always with a slight twist, often embedded in their main characters. While they had leaned heavily in their early films on struggling young adults with an emphasis on economic and social disparity, in recent years they have expanded their palette to deal with younger characters (2011's The Kid With a Bike) and religion (2019's Young Ahmed, which also features a teenage protagonist).
Their newest film, Tori and Lokita (Tori et Lokita), bears all the hallmarks of their previous films, but this time focuses on African immigrants trying to survive in a small Belgian city. Eleven-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) and 16-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu) live together and pose as brother and sister, even though they are not related (how they came together is never really explained, nor does it need to be). Tori has procured papers that allow him to live in Belgium, but Lokita has not, and when we first meet her, she is being interviewed by immigration officials and trying to keep her story straight. She wears the desperation of her plight, which keeps her in the precarious position of never knowing how long she can stay in the country. She and Tori have come to depend on each other, so even though they do not actually share blood, they are, for all intents and purposes, family.
And this is why it is so tragic that Lokita is forced into increasingly dire circumstances, which means she has to rely more and more on Betim (Alban Ukaj), who manages a restaurant out of which he also operates an illegal drug ring. Betim exploits their situation by using them as drug couriers and, in some of the film's most distressing scenes, forces Lokita to perform sexual favors (the Dardennes show almost nothing on screen, but the visual ellipses do little to minimize Lokita's humiliation). She eventually ends up working for Betim tending to a hidden cannabis farm, which is so secret that not even Tori knows where she is.
Even more so than the Dardennes's previous films, Tori and Lokita has an unwavering air of impending tragedy, which makes each moment gut-wrenching even when nothing much seems to be happening. Tori and Lokita's situation is both painfully specific and all too common, which allows the film to work as both a close-up human drama and a plea for others to see the difficulties faced by African immigrants in Europe. The Dardennes have never been didactic filmmakers even though their films often center around and offer a clear perspective on difficult political subjects, and Tori and Lokita is no different. The film's unadorned style and simple narrative, along with the achingly moving performances Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu, neither of whom have ever acted in a film before, give it an air of reality that is impossible to shake, which makes its titular protagonists feel all the more immediate and poignant in their struggles.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Janus Films
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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