She's in no mood for a romantic comedy. The Flemish-language film "Moscow, Belgium" begins with an plainly exhausted woman, in her early 40s, piloting a shopping cart down a grocery store aisle, two of her three kids tagging along, while a mournful accordion sets the mood on the soundtrack. She has an interesting face, this woman—numbed, down, but not out.
The way Belgian actress Barbara Sarafian plays this opening sequence you're not sure if you're entering a tragedy, or a tragicomedy, or what. The film turns out to be "or what." It's also worth seeing. Sarafian—think Frances McDormand, but less—can do wonders with a weary zinger and an air of "OK, what now?" Born and raised in Ghent, Belgium, Sarafian is acting every second she's onscreen, yet you never catch her at it.
The story is set in a working- and middle-class area near Ghent called "Mouscou," where Matty (Sarafian) works as a postal clerk. Her art teacher husband, Werner (Johan Heldenbergh), has moved out of their apartment and in with one of his students. Matty and Werner's three kids shuttle between the two apartments, their oldest, Vera (Anemone Valcke, remarkably natural), acting as the resident chops-buster and play-by-play commentator. Just after leaving the grocery at the beginning of the film, Matty backs into a truck belonging to Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet). She may as well back into a stack of Screenwriting 101 textbooks, translated into Flemish. Undoing the tantalizing ambiguity of the introduction, the requisite "meet-cute" scenario introduces Matty to Johnny, a mismatch in the making.
From there "Moscow, Belgium" proceeds very oddly. The script, directed by TV veteran and first-time feature filmmaker Christophe van Rompaey, fears no contrivance, and once Johnny's character defects are revealed—he has done time for assault and battery, his ex-wife being one of the victims—you get a queasy feeling you're in for a mighty forgiving portrait of a batterer.
Yet even with scenes such as Johnny serenading Matty with a karaoke bar rendition of "Mona Lisa," these actors keep finding fresh variations to pull. As Matty decides to fling her fling with Johnny (partly to get even with her philandering separated husband), Sarafian's transformation is pretty miraculous. She doesn't "doll up" in the usual rom-com sense; she thaws from the inside out. The way this performer handles confrontations—dealing with her children, the two men in her life and in one refreshingly matter-of-fact scene, her own body—you're reminded how seldom fine actresses have a chance to explore more than one note, mood, character trait or riddle at a time. Romance in this suburb formally known as Ledeberg may go according to romantic comedy convention. But "Moscow, Belgium" has the right actress to glue it all together.
Here's something else that hit me while watching this picture. It's the sort of modest success—actor-driven, well-crafted, just off-center enough to be interesting—that on a lower budget could, and should, be coming out of Chicago once a year. We certainly have the actors. We have the writers and directors and cinematographers and composers. With a little luck, plus some against-the-odds financing that can only happen when the right investors say "Recession? What recession?"––this town's next step is to make a lot more cinematic noise in between big-budget visitors such as "Wanted" and " The Dark Knight."
No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for nudity, some language and some violence).
Running time: 1:42.
Opening: Jan. 9 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.
Starring: Barbara Sarafian (Matty); Jurgen Delnaet (Johnny); Johan Heldenbergh (Werner); Anemone Valcke (Vera)
Directed by: Christophe van Rompaey; written by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs; photographed by Ruben Impens; edited by Alain Dessauvage; music by Tuur Florizoone; produced by Dries Phlypo and Mieke De Wulf. A Neo-Classic Films release. In Flemish with English subtitles.
'Moscow, Belgium' --3 stars
'Moscow, Belgium' stars Barbara Sarafian
Rating: 3 stars (good)
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