Over the last 25 years, Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have carved out a distinctive niche for themselves in the annals of world cinema, with their moving, gripping and powerful studies of western Europe’s underclass.
Their names have deservedly become an automatic guarantee of quality, recognised as such by the two Palmes d’Or they have won at the Cannes Film Festival – for Rosetta in 1999 and The Child in 2005 – and the countless other awards and accolades they have received around the globe.
Given they are now 71 and 68 respectively, no one would blame Jean-Pierre and Luc were they to rest on their well-earned and plentiful laurels. If anything, though, they are only getting better with age.
In recent years, the pair have artfully combined their insightful awareness of social inequalities with the tension and urgency of a well-crafted thriller. That deft balance continues with Tori and Lokita, a brave and suspenseful story of two young African immigrants whose friendship is their only defence against the difficult conditions of their exile.
Although 11-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) and 16-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu) were born in Benin and Cameroon respectively, they have been passing themselves off as brother and sister ever since they arrived illegally in Belgium. But the authorities have begun to doubt their story, leaving Lokita at risk of deportation before she can obtain her official papers.
Obliged to sell drugs for pizzeria chef Betim (Alban Ukaj) in order to survive, Lokita is also in hock to the traffickers who arranged her passage. Not only that, but she also has a mother back home demanding she wire money to pay for her real siblings’ education.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that when Betim offers her the job of looking after an out-of-town cannabis farm, she leaps at the opportunity. In accepting the job, though, she puts both herself and Tori at the mercy of a ruthless crew of organised professional criminals.
Thrilling and engrossing from first scene to last, Tori and Lokita was so rapturously received at this year’s Cannes that it received a special prize in celebration of the festival’s 75th anniversary.
Its young stars were the toast of the Croisette, thanks to their irresistible and touching performances – a testament to their directors’ mastery at spotting raw and untrained new talent. “Given the characters’ youth, we decided not to work with a professional actress and actor,” the Dardennes explain. “Our dearest wish is that the audience, who will have felt deep empathy for these two young exiles and their unfailing friendship, will also feel a sense of revolt against the injustice that reigns in our societies.”
As countless people today try to find safety and security in the West, Tori and Lokita puts a human face on these struggles to outstanding, beautiful and unmissable results. From 1996’s The Promise and 2002’s The Son, through to Lorna’s Silence, The Kid With A Bike and the BAFTA-nominated Two Days, One Night, Jean-Pierre and Luc have built up a extraordinary body of work that unites a keen social conscience with incredible and thrilling drama. With their newest offering, they again confirm their status as two of Europe’s most remarkable and special auteurs.