Matty and Johnny plunge into a flood of unrestrained recrimination.


Moscow, Belgium

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            “Moscow, Belgium” is a Flemish romantic comedy with edge. Try this: a touch of sentiment here, a bit of drama there, a hefty dose of laughter, and an absolute absence of malice. Then add a dazzling performance by Barbara Sarafian that lifts the movie way above others we have seen this year. It is the story, wonderfully told, of one family’s navigation of life’s daily obstacles.

            The movie opens with Matty (Barbara Sarafian) pushing her grocery cart down one dull aisle after another in a universal grocery store. Her expression, frozen in reluctant acceptance of one of life’s least rewarding chores, is static and unresponsive – a reflection of her life at the moment. After Matty and her youngest daughter load the bags into the car, Matty goes into reverse and backs up into the gleaming yellow truck belonging to its proud owner, Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet). Jumping from their vehicles, Matty and Johnny plunge into a marvelous flood of unrestrained recrimination. These shouted insults are the first words we hear from Matty, and we soon learned they were right there, waiting to be triggered.

            Why? Well, Matty works at an unexciting job in a small post office near her high rise apartment. Her husband has gone AWOL for a mid-life crisis with a young thing but keeps stopping by to see the kids and to reassure Matty that he will always love her. Vera (Anemone Valcke in a terrific performance), her 16 year old daughter, is impossible to reach; Peter (Julian Borsani) is absorbed in video games, and Fien (Sofia Ferri) indulges her obsession with tarot cards. Matty is resigned to all this, but when the much younger Johnny comes round to fix her car and to ask her out for a drink, she sinks into indecision. Alone just yesterday, Matty is now the object of the affections of two men. In a wave of empathy young Vera rallies to her mother’s need while her mom struggles with the ups and downs of relationships. 

            The movie unfolds in the fairly bleak landscape of apartments, parking lots, and streets. This is a story not about scenery but about a family living a modest life; it’s also about what happens when love of life bursts through the shell of resignation. What lifts it so far above the other movies of this year is tight direction by Christophe van Rompaey, an excellent script by Jean-Clauide van Rijkeghem, and a fine cast that never overacts. After just a few minutes, we know this family well. 

            Barbara Sarafian holds the screen efflortlessly for two hours. We realize, much later, that because there is no superfluous dialogue we gave been reading her face. Because she is an actor who can deliver everything through expression, she has explained her whole inner life with very few words. It’s a terrific piece of acting and the rest of the cast is in perfect tune with her.

 


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