“Tori and Lokita” is the angriest movie the Dardenne brothers have ever made, a distinction that shouldn’t be taken lightly in the context of filmmakers who’ve spent the last three decades carving diamond-sharp moral dramas from the plights of Belgium’s most dispossessed people.
Like most of the duo’s work, “Tori and Lokita” leverages the irreducible nature of human dignity against the ever-worsening apathy of human civilization. Like much of their work — including the Palme d’Or winner “Rosetta” and the 2002 masterpiece, “The Son” — the film’s threadbare story hinges on effectively parentless children whose need for support leads them towards danger. And like the best of their work, which this sobering return to form represents from its curious first shot to its furious last beat, its premise pulls tighter until even the simplest actions are endowed with breathless intensity.
But it’s the anger that sets “Tori and Lokita” apart from the rest of the Dardennes’ films — the anger that has been implicit in social commentary from the start, but is explicit here. That fire is dull at the beginning, incandescent by the end, and always spitting its rage at those of us on the other side of the screen. Awful shit of one kind or another happens to undeserving people in all of the Dardennes’ movies, and there before the grace of God go we. This time, however, we only have ourselves to blame.
The audience is complicit from the opening shot, which assumes the perspective of a Belgian immigration administrator of some kind interrogating a teenage girl from Cameroon about her past. The unblinking frame holds for what feels like several minutes as the anxious Lokita (Joely Mbundu) strains to remember simple if 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 has been granted political asylum for a horrifying reason that isn’t worth getting into 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 the connection between Tori and Lokita is that they love each other — they’re all they have. They live together in the same shelter for “unaccompanied foreign minors,” they deliver drugs together for the same awful drug dealer (a cook who conducts his business from the basement of an Italian restaurant), and they give most of the money they make to the same violent smuggler who helped them get to Belgium in the first place.
Not only would you believe that Tori and Lokita are related, but the bond they share is so vivid and alive that you’d believe the actors playing them were, too (in keeping with Dardennes tradition, there isn’t a false note between these two co-lead performances). He’s the eager, clever, sweet-natured younger sibling who just wants to get the most out of every situation; she’s the stoic and responsible older sibling who does what she can to shield Tori from the barbarity of the world around them, even if he’s already seen too much of it first-hand. There’s a shared history between them, regardless of how far back it goes. You can hear it in the songs they sing together, and see it in the way they watch for each other as they cross a busy street.
Tori and Lokita seldom 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, live-in job maintaining the drug dealer’s grow house in return for fake immigration papers. The location of the facility is kept secret, and the people who operate 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 it takes, and if things get bad enough, they’ll risk it all to create a better arrangement.
If this all sounds uncharacteristically sweet for a Dardenne brothers’ movie (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 shared warmth between Tori and Lokita that’s almost unheard of in the filmmakers’ work — a tactile sense of love that Benoit Dervaux’s freeform camerawork and natural lighting renders with impenetrable truth. That sense rings even stronger because of the Dardenne brothers’ deceptively casual direction, which transforms basic actions (e.g. Tori breaking into the grow house in order to make contact with Lokita) into heart-wrenching 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 damning that these two kids have to love each other this much just to survive in a society that doesn’t care about them.
On the other hand, that sweetness is used as kindling for the film’s moral fury, which is all the more pronounced whenever the action spills over into public view. The very first scene of the movie frames this story as one that we are complicit in permitting, and the Dardennes never let us off the hook. “Us” can mean any number of things, of course, but “Tori and Lokita” is so haunting and raw because of how skillfully it conflates institutional crises with individual failures, smudging one into the other with the imperceptible obviousness of a close-up magician.
Immigration laws may be determined by a small handful of elected officials, but they’re enforced by the dispassion of millions on a daily basis. Here, the blunt genius of the Dardennes’ parable-like plotting is expressed through how casually it implicates its characters. Hours (or even days) after the credits roll, you may find yourself returning to the final minutes of this movie as if to memorialize them; you may find yourself replaying even the most incidental encounters in your mind, and being horrified all over again by all the different points at which tragedy might have been averted.
That investigation will invariably start with one particular moment, but it will soon lead all the way back to that very first shot, as every scene of this laser-cut 89-minute film becomes an indictment of the one just before it. The movie’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 might have been prevented. Most crushing of all is the rare instance when Tori and Lokita might have been able to help themselves, if only they had as little regard for other people as other people seem to have for them.
The Dardenne brothers may not be known for mincing words, but “Tori and Lokita” pioneers never-before-seen degrees of words un-minced. The final moments of their latest film hit you in the stomach with several lifetimes’ worth of unresolved outrage, as the social ills they’ve spent the last 30 years trying to dramatize toward visibility have only gotten worse — the horrors much worse, and the hope 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 nakedly allowed a moral parable to burn into the stuff of mad-hot polemic, but it’s easy to appreciate why the Dardennes might want to eschew what little subtlety they have left as they move into the twilight of their shared career (itself a testament to the strength that siblings can provide each other). Fringed with an even greater degree of futility than any of the duo’s previous work, “Tori and Lokita” doesn’t harbor any delusions that shining a harsh light on such awful stories will ever be enough to make the world a better place, and yet — in the least uncertain terms imaginable — it leaves us with an indelible glimpse into the darkness that surrounds them.
“Tori and Lokita” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.