Film Review: Moscow, Belgium

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The holidays are a time of miracles, so the arrival of this Belgian gem—shot on a shoestring budget in 20 days by a first-time feature film director—is timely indeed. It bursts with universal truths and the considerable talent and charm needed to deliver them, but will audiences be around to accept?

A bright light on the festival circuit, including its Cannes 2008 Critics’ Week top prize and major buzz generated at the Hamptons Film Festival, Moscow, Belgium is a triumph of remarkable luck and talent. But lacking a catchy hook and familiar names, luck will have to carry the film to the sizeable art-house audiences it deserves.

At the besieged center of Moscow, Belgium is 41-year-old Matty (Barbara Sarafian), whose art-teacher husband Werner (Johan Heldenbergh) has confronted his mid-life crisis by moving in with a young student. Left alone, Matty is charged with their three kids, most notably the oldest—rebellious adolescent Vera (Anemone Valcke)—who observes her family’s dramas with eyes both cynical and jaundiced.

Enter Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), a not-yet 30-year-old trucker who meets Matty after she backs into his truck. She’s hostile at first, but Johnny, whose gig brings him to Italy where he has picked up the Italian equivalent of savoir faire, worms his way into Matty’s good graces and other parts.

The two begin a bumpy affair (appropriately launched in the cramped cabin of Johnny’s truck) that soon rattles the family, Vera especially and then Werner, who, predictably, does not take well to such unexpected competition.

And it’s no smooth sailing either for Matty, who learns of Johnny’s violent past but is nonetheless smitten to a degree. The affair hits several land mines, including heated confrontations when elitist Werner and plainspoken Johnny clash at the same table sharing Matty’s stew. More sparks fly at a parade where Johnny runs into and after his ex-wife’s bullying lawyer boyfriend. Vera and Werner also bear surprises. While Matty can live with her daughter’s revelations, Werner’s brings complications.

The joys in Moscow, Belgium are many: Sarafian gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the besieged Matty, and the fine supporting cast, especially Delnaet and Valcke, honor that standard. The film’s love triangle is deceptively simple, but screenwriters Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat Van Beirs enliven it with plenty of twists and complications. Tuur Florizoone’s subtle music strikes the right notes, assuring the right moods.

The working-class Ghent suburbs and locations of Moscow and Ledeberg add authenticity. But, most importantly, newbie director Christophe Van Rompaey injects his work with heart and intelligence so that every frame rings true.