Simple and powerful, Tori and Lokita is the latest example of a film by the Dardenne brothers, a film-making duo who these days have to clear a high bar to get real praise, one raised by their own string of good-shading-to-great films.
Two Days One Night, The Kid with a Bike, Lorna’s Silence, pick a Dardennes movie and they’re all in essence the same story – fragile people at a moment of crisis. Here it’s mostly African migrant Lokita who’s in the firing line. As the film opens in a simple lock shot, she’s being asked a series of questions by an immigration official in Belgium, who want to know more about her relationship with her brother. Not all of Lokita’s answers are “correct” and so she’s denied the papers she craves.
The problem is Tori isn’t really her brother. In fact she and he don’t even speak the same African language, but Tori and Lokita have French in common and en route to Europe have forged a fierce protective mutual bond. Far away from their respective families, tall older, sweet-natured Lokita and small, younger, tough and smart Tori are tighter than many a brother and sister.
This is a story of the immigrant experience from a child’s perspective and the difficulty in getting a toehold on the life that the host society has, even though what looked like the major obstacle – being in the country itself – has been negotiated. For Tori and Lokita their existence is a round of singing in the Italian restaurant where they work, then running drugs for its chef, Betim (Alban Ukaj), who also expects occasional sexual favours from Lokita. Also making demands are the smugglers who got them into Belgium and still want paying. Plus, at the other end of the telephone line, the family back home in need of Euros.
But it’s only when the two of them are split up – Lokita is sent off to cultivate the plants in an out-of-town skunk farm – that the crisis comes, one borne out of Lokita and Tori’s need to remain in contact. All they have is each other.
“Well if they don’t like it then they shouldn’t have come in the first place, should they?” some will say, and if that’s you thenTori and Lokita is unlikely to be appeal. But there is more to it than just preaching to the converted. More than migrant propaganda, it is a severe tale of people in distress and in a corner so tight that every wriggle only traps them tighter. Lokita repeatedly says that all she craves is her papers so she can start training to work. She wants to contribute to society, but can’t.
It’s the shock of confrontation with the starkness of the situation that makes it work. The skunk farm that Lokita ends up at – where vast acreages of cannabis grows hydroponically under lights – looks like the real deal and the Dardennes shoot everything in an absolutely matter-of-fact style. One camera, no edits, no soundtrack.
It’s very much in keeping with the prescriptions of the Dogme 95 group, in fact, the group of mostly Nordic directors who took an oath of purity and came up with films like Festen, The Idiots and Italian for Beginners.
Films made very much in the style of the Dardennes, who’d been making Dogme-style films for ten years before Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg came up with their manifesto. The high profile of the Dogme movement must have aided the Dardennes, surely – their big breakthrough, La Promesse, came in 1996, after all.
Neither Joely Mbundu (Lokita) nor Pablo Schils (Tori) have acted before and both give warm yet guarded performances, and are entirely right as endangered humans always trying to work out which way the wind is blowing. Though Mbundu gets most of the screen time, it’s Schils who gets more of a chance to excel as the tough and self-possessed, whip-smart Tori.
Migration in Europe is now a media staple and sensible discussion is often blown out of the water by emotive talk of being “swamped” or of countries being “full”. Lost in all this are people like Tori and Lokita. But while the Dardennes film is all about slavery, of a sort, it’s also majorly about the bonds of friendship. They offer a little beacon of light in a picture of almost unrelenting darkness.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023