Review: Tori and Lokita

What has always impressed me about the social-issue films of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is the way they incorporate an empathetic take on the lives of people living on the margins into stories that are both credible and dramatically affecting. In some of their most recent films, however, this dynamic has slipped a bit, usually on the side of storytelling. Their latest, about a pair of African refugees struggling to settle into some kind of orderly life in urban Belgium, is their most scathing social indictment in years, which makes the small plot blunders all the more frustrating. 

When we meet the titular characters, one an adolescent boy from Benin (Pablo Schils) who has been provisionally accepted because he is fleeing from terror, the other a young Cameroonian woman (Lokita) who slipped in via a trafficker to work and send money back to her family, they have both already finished what should have been the most arduous and dangerous part of their European journey, the trek from Africa by boat and truck. But danger is still at hand, especially for Lokita, who is trying to convince the authorities that Tori is her brother. For sure, their bond, obviously forged during the journey, is as tight as that of blood siblings, and when Lokita is away from Tori for any length of time she has panic attacks. Nevertheless, immigration doesn’t buy her story, and she more or less hangs in limbo, working as a drug courier for a restaurant chef. Meanwhile, the trafficker, a fellow African who helped her get to the EU, is demanding more money all the time and threatening her. Tori, as resourceful as they come, helps the best he can, and his efforts give Lokita courage under the most demeaning circumstances.

Eventually, Lokita has no choice but to obtain papers illegally, and the chef promises to help her get them if she works for his drug concern tending marijuana plants in an underground warehouse. She’s essentially a prisoner there, with no contact to the outside world, including Tori, who is trying to make a little more money on the side scamming the chef. Obviously, something’s got to give and when it does it hits hard. The bleakness of the turn of events is as believable as it is depressing, but the mechanics of how Tori and Lokita get to that juncture is painfully obvious and sometimes contrived. It’s a problem that’s evident in a lot of current cinema and TV—how exactly do criminal operations work in real life?—but if it’s in service to the thriller genre, then the viewer will cut the filmmakers some slack. The Dardennes are deadly serious about the situation they depict, and while the empathy is as strong as ever, the story is forced to travel a bumpy road. The brothers, it seems, are as liable to fall back on cliches as any action-movie hack might.

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Tori and Lokita home page in Japanese

photo (c) Les Films du Fleuve-Archipel 35-Savage Film-France 2 Cinema-VOO et Be tv-Proximus-RTBF (Television blege)

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