Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who have directed a series of films notable for quiet naturalism, are a prime example of how at the Cannes Film Festival, familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment.
Year after year, Cannes puts the Dardennes’ films in the Main Competition; they’ve made nine features since “Rosetta” in 1999, and every one of them has vied for Cannes’ top honor, the Palme d’Or, with “Rosetta” and 2005’s “L’Enfant” winning and four others taking additional awards. The Dardennes now have a chance to make significant Cannes history by becoming the first directors to ever win the Palme for a third time.
If they win for “Tori and Lokita,” which premiered in Cannes on Tuesday, they’ll also set a new record for the longest time elapsed between Cannes wins, with the 17-year gap since “L’Enfant” breaking the record of 14 years between Shohei Imamura’s wins for “The Ballad of Narayama” and The Eel.”
But familiarity may also be working against the Dardennes at this point. Their style has evolved but not changed dramatically over the years, so it may be harder for a jury (and viewers) to respond the way they would if they hadn’t been become so accustomed to seeing naturalistic Dardenne stories about ordinary people under stress, shot using natural light and handheld cameras.
Still, this story of a pair of young immigrants who’ve come from Africa to Berlin combines the Dardennes’ quiet empathy with some real urgency, In 88 succinct and effective minutes, it sketches a heartbreaking portrait of young refugees clinging to each other in a Europe that is far from welcoming.
The film first introduces Lokita as she sits in a Belgian office and is quizzed about her life in Benin, her reasons for coming to Europe and her relationship with the younger Tori, whom she claims is her brother. She’s obviously hiding something, and to stave off a panic attack the interview is rescheduled for another day.
Enter Tori, who’s younger than Lokita but whip-smart and ingenious, coming up with a string of questions to help prepare her for the next interview. As the title characters, Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu, both first-time actors, have the kind of lived-in, playful rapport that suggests they’ve clung to each other through years of hardships; they may not really be brother and sister, but the young performers make their bond feel deep and visceral.
The interview, it turns out, is for Lokita’s application for residency papers. (Tori already has his.) Her goal is to send money to her mother back home in Benin, but it’s complicated by the predatory smuggler who’s demanding they keep paying him for getting them to Europe, and by the boss who pays the kids 5 Euro to start off karaoke nights at his restaurant and more to sell drugs for him. (In Lokita’s case, he demands sexual favors as well.)
When Lokita flubs her second interview, she gets desperate and accepts her boss’ offer to supply forged papers in exchange for three months labor in a remote facility where he has a thriving cannabis-growing business. It’s essentially a prison with no contact with the outside world, which isn’t tolerable for this pair who depend on each other for everything.
As usual, though, it’s the characters and their relationships that matter to the Dardennes far more than the details of plot. The story starts out dark, gets darker and ends abruptly, but its focus is on the life these two young people find in a society that has little use for them. Schils and Mbundu are both remarkable, the latest in a long line of nonprofessional actors who’ve delivered fine performances under the gentle hand of the Dardennes.
Most of the brothers’ early films dealt with white, working-class people, usually in Belgium or France, but “Tori and Lokita” is their second consecutive drama to center people of color. (“Young Ahmed,” which played Cannes in 2019, dealt with the radicalization of a young Muslim boy.) It’s also one of their strongest films in years, a quiet drama that bursts with humanity even as it casts a sad eye on inhumanity.