Tori and Lokita: the Dardennes’ latest is a tragic tale of African child refugees in Belgium

Winner of this year’s Cannes Film Festival’s 75th Anniversary Prize, this latest attempt by the Dardenne brothers to plumb the depths to which humans can sink, and the strength people can find when most tested, is a grim yet complex and ultimately rewarding picture.

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Mbundu Joely and Pablo Schils as Lokita and Tori in Tori and Lokita (2022)

Earlier this year the Dardenne brothers won yet another prize at the Cannes Film Festival, this time with Tori and Lokita, which sees them continue their exploration of contemporary social ills – in this case, the plight of refugee African children. Lokita (Joely Mbundu) and Tori (Pablo Schils), separated from their respective families, met on a boat to Sicily. Now in Belgium, Lokita claims to be Tori’s big sister, partly because of their close bond and partly in the hope of obtaining identity papers (which Tori already has). The two youngsters do odd jobs to survive, which leads to small-time drug dealing for a local restaurant chef, Betim (Alban Ukaj). They encounter hardship, exploitation and abuse from the adults around them, white and black, male and female: their smugglers, Betim, the drug clients, and Lokita’s mother, who shouts down the telephone, demanding she send money. Lokita also has to endure sexual abuse from Betim. Even the friendly, apparently compassionate immigration officials can’t, or won’t, help.

If this suggests a film that simplistically conforms to the Dardennes’ reputation for producing work of unremitting grimness, the experience of watching it is more complex and more rewarding. To be sure, the narrative is a tragic one, and it is impossible not to be moved by the eponymous youngsters’ struggle in a pitiless world. But from the opening sequence, where Lokita is interviewed by immigration officials, the Dardennes’ very mise en scène avoids pathos. Facing the camera, Lokita answers the unseen interviewer with the energy and confidence of youth (recalling a famous scene from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, 1959). Lokita may be a victim, but she is not defined entirely in these terms.

The hitherto untrained actors deliver superbly natural performances. Throughout the film, the camera follows their actions and movements tightly but never lingers on their faces for effect. When Lokita is taken for the first time to a cannabis farm, we discover the mysterious, initially scary place with her; the camera follows her closely yet never feels intrusive or exploitative. Sordid details, such as Lokita being forced to give sexual favours to Betim, are left offscreen. This is matter-of-fact, economical filmmaking whose quasi-documentary minimalism gains power by avoiding melodrama.

Tori and Lokita is a humanist rather than a political film, pointing the finger at human cruelty, specifically the abuse of children, rather than at racism per se. Whether this is a weakness or a strength will depend on the sensibilities of the viewer.

► Tori and Lokita is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.