It feels like the double Palme d’Or winning Dardenne brothers are falling out of critical fashion. Even though they continue making essential movies, tell stories that need to be told, tackle modern social issues from a left-wing perspective and with their customary nonjudgement and nuance. To quote a popular internet Simpsons meme: no, it’s the critics who are wrong. As per recent developments regarding their aesthetic, the Liège-based siblings again infuse their latest, Tori and Lokita (2022), with a thriller-like tension.
Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Mbundu Joely) are youngsters from Benin awaiting their asylum documents to be processed. We learn Tori has fled his native land because he’s the son of a supposed witch and therefore marked for death. While they pose as brother and sister, Lokita is not related to Tori, they met on the boat coming over and have travelled through Europe together, a strong bond forged through ordeal. Singing Italian songs in a restaurant for a few coins, they also make a bit of cash selling drugs outside a nightclub for a local crook.
Tori and Lokita arrives at a time of heightened xenophobia, far-right fearmongering and media sensationalism over the migrant crisis in Europe. People seeking asylum have been thoroughly dehumanised. Without making either saints – they’re survivors – Tori and Lokita shows how child asylum seekers are preyed upon by people smugglers and gangsters.
Throughout its taut 88 minutes, the Dardennes’ direction and camera style is typically grounded and intimate, the narrative cranking up the pressure on the kids until it becomes almost unbearable and suffocating. What it also demonstrates, very subtly, is how Tori and Lokita have skillsets that, in any other scenario, would see them thrive. They are multi-lingual, compassionate, clever and given half a chance, they would make a success of their lives. Getting that chance, though, that’s the difficult part.
Schils and Joely do incredible work. As the story grows more perilous, Tori and Lokita reaffirm their absolute need for each other, they are inseparable, bravely forging a path for themselves in a frightening world that doesn’t care if they live or die. Tori and Lokita is a haunting and important film made in a time of darkness.
Image credit: Archipel Films. All rights reserved.