Lorna’s Silence opens Friday in select theaters

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the evils of European socialism. Although the Belgian drama Lorna’s Silence, the latest film from brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, isn’t intended to be relevant to America’s town hall meetings about health care, American viewers are likely to make such associations in ways both trivial and profound.

Like other films by les Dardennes, including La Promesse and The Son, Lorna’s Silence is an appealing mixture of moral inquiry, social realism and crime melodrama; in this respect the brothers’ work is comparable to such 19th-century writers as Emile Zola and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Once again, we meet a character who lives on the fringe of Belgian society: Lorna (Arta Dobroshi, who looks like Ellen Page if she were a hard-bitten yet sexy undocumented worker) is an illegal immigrant from Albania. She works at a laundry and is enmeshed in a complicated arrangement with Sokol, her Albanian itinerant laborer boyfriend, and Fabio, a small-time gangster and cab driver, to enter into a fraudulent marriage to Claudy, a Belgian heroin addict (Jérémie Renier, a veteran of two earlier Dardennes films and most recently seen here as the younger brother in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours).

Lorna’s plan is to gain Belgian citizenship, obtain a quickie divorce from Claudy and then sell her matrimonial rights to a Russian who also wants Belgian citizenship.

But the moral fly in the ointment is Claudy, who has decided that he wants to kick the dope, and this time he will succeed. However, Claudy’s newfound determination to take control of his life imperils the criminal enterprise, and it also sparks the moral awakening of Lorna. Slowly but inexorably, their sham marriage turns into an empathetic, compassionate solidarity. These scenes are lovely and heart-rending, but that’s only part of the story.

It takes a while to get one’s bearings in this film. First of all, the marriage plot is complicated, as are the characters’ intricate financial arrangements. But more important, the pervasive level of government involvement in the characters’ lives is striking to Americans who have been taught to distrust the state. Those Americans who believe the government should take a more active role in ensuring equitable access to health care will only shake their heads at the scene in which Lorna goes to the pharmacy and purchases a drug that will relieve Claudy’s withdrawal pains. Although Lorna doesn’t have a prescription, the pharmacist sells it to her, recognizing that she really needs the drug for the addict in her life.

While such scenes might seem to strike easy points for the European welfare state, there’s a more subtle way in which the Belgian social system is woven into the film’s armature of moral difficultyand again, it might seem more obvious to Americans. Lorna’s plotting is illegal and immoralas she comes to seebut those choices can also be seen as a rational response to her untenable situation. She’s obviously in Belgium to find opportunities she won’t have in Albania, but in order to stay in her new country, she’s going to have to game the system. There are fraudulent marriages in the U.S., too, but in Belgium, the state’s role seems to be more pervasive and paternalistic, thus placing her in a position of taking ever more desperate and self-abasing measures. When she comes under pressure from her fellow conspirators to get divorced quickly, a bureaucrat tells her that the only way to expedite it is if she’s physically abused. Lorna dutifully asks Claudy to hit her, but he refuses: He’ll take money for the marriage, but going on record as a hitter of women is something he won’t do.

Lorna discovers that despite her marginal status in the European community, she still has moral agency. However, her route to her moral awakening is a surprising oneand it’s also one that’s more psychological than depicted in previous Dardennes films.

While the Dardennes are as always concerned with the moral dilemmas to be found on society’s margins, they are also damn good spinners of thrillers. In Lorna’s Silence, there’s a plot development midway through that is handled in such a way as to be utterly shockingstudents of narrative editing will be fascinated by how a key event is elided here. Lorna’s Silence isn’t quite as fully realized as some earlier Dardennes films (my favorite is the hard-to-find Rosetta), but it’s still a heady mix of reportage, sociology and potboiler. In other words, great storytelling.