The Belgium-based, immigration-centred Tori and Lokita is a vintage piece of Dardenne cinema, but its naturalistic power falters in comparison to their previous films.
The cinema of the Dardenne brothers has almost become a genre unto itself. Since their first feature film Falsch (1987) and even more so after their breakout film La Promesse (1996), Jean-Pierre and Luc have forged out a distinctive naturalistic style entrenched in social realism. Their latest, Tori and Lokita, is no different, both further evidence of their proficiency at telling important, relevant stories as well as the difficulty at maintaining a consistent intensity, even for such illustrious filmmakers. Tori and Lokita is indisputably affecting – it would be difficult to reflect on this film completely coldly or distantly – and it certainly speaks with a searing truth, but too often it divulges into an onslaught of suffering with an uneven, occasionally meek power behind it.
The titular siblings – brother and sister not by blood but by shared experience – find themselves in Belgium after escaping hardship in their home countries of Cameroon and Benin. The younger of the two, Tori (Pablo Schils), fled from cruel accusations of sorcery, helped by teenager Lokita (Joely Mbundu) during their passage via boat to Italy then Belgium. Lokita is without papers and their brother-sister relation is questioned by immigration officers, alighting part of the conflict and tension in Tori and Lokita. To pay the man who smuggled them into the country, they deliver both pizza and drugs for an abusive chef in the area.
Non-professional actors Mbundu Joely and Pablo Schils as Lokita and Tori respectively have so much to do in the film. Frequent close-ups of faces and dynamic long takes, which are so synonymous with other Dardenne films such as Rosetta (1999), require a constant intensity and dedication from the actors. Throughout Tori and Lokita, both Joely and Schils achieve impressive heights and emotional depths. Joely brings a stoic maturity to her teenage character whilst Schils is similarly old beyond his years, but also charmingly funny and playful. Their relationship, which is so important to maintaining the humanistic, hopeful angle to Tori and Lokita, is wholly endearing and believable, one based on unerring loyalty and love.
As their difficult situation becomes increasingly desperate, this hopefulness inevitably expires from Tori and Lokita. Admirably, the Dardenne brothers resist any melodrama, instead grounding the film in vividly realistic cruelty. Perhaps the main issue with Tori and Lokita is how often it veers close to or into misery porn. True, the relentless barrage of hardship is reflective of so many immigrants and their experiences, but Tori and Lokita won’t be eye-opening to many viewers, which calls into question its need to portray such suffering. Ultimately, the success and impact of the Dardenne brothers’ latest will depend on whether the viewer feels like the film’s existence is justified.
Whilst its beats are predictable and the formula is to be expected, Tori and Lokita remains largely forceful, although it does lack the same undulating, complex, fiery power of films like Rosetta. A lack of narrative impetus further part-extinguishes this uneven power, but there is still enough here to move you to a hushed silence when the screen cuts to black, a silence compounded by swirling emotions of sadness, anger, and exasperation. Blunt and stripped-back in a similar way to Ken Loach’s British drama I, Daniel Blake (2016), Tori and Lokita’s style reflects its characters’ bare, bleak existence. Tori’s statement that Lokita being given legal papers – on a human level, an easy thing to provide – could have saved so much of the onscreen suffering is indicative of the basic level of decency and help that people like these two siblings need.
Tori and Lokita is now available to watch on digital and on demand.