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Review: 'Moscow, Belgium'

In this raffish charmer, love is like the 10-ton truck driven by one of the unlikely sweethearts. It hits -- and it hits hard.

February 20, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Moscow, Belgium" is as wonderfully contradictory as its title. A realistic romantic comedy with considerable raffish charm and a great spirit, it looks at love's struggles with an offbeat but very human eye.

That title is not a misprint or an exercise in fantasy geography; it's the name of a neighborhood in the Belgian city of Ghent, where the film is set. An impressive debut for Flemish-speaking director Christophe Van Rompaey, the film deals candidly with where love comes from and where it goes. It's the kind of urban romance that hard-core fellow Belgians the Dardenne brothers might make if they ever did that kind of thing.

A success at Cannes' Critics' Week last year, "Moscow, Belgium" wouldn't be the film it is without the bravura performance of star Barbara Sarafian, who is so good that the Minsk Film Festival created a special award in her honor: "special recognition for personification of a modern woman." Yes, it's a mouthful, but it pretty much says it all.

"Moscow, Belgium" opens with Matty (Sarafian) walking down the aisle of her local supermarket with a face that couldn't be bleaker and more bereft if she was on the Bataan Death March. If this woman's been looking for hope, it's not to be found on these shelves.

Matty comes by her despair honestly. At age 41 she and her three children have been abandoned by her art teacher husband, Werner (Johan Heldenbergh), who's gone off to live with a 22-year-old former student. Matty knows its unhealthy to count the time since Werner left (five months, two weeks and three days) but she still loves him and wants him back.

Things are about to get worse for Matty before they get better. Leaving her supermarket parking space, she collides with an enormous 10-ton truck driven by the red-haired, red-bearded Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet). But the crash itself is nothing compared to the verbal collision that comes next.

A woman with a sharp and biting tongue who's fed up to the teeth with the way her life is going, Matty lays into Johnny like a fury, taking out all her frustrations on him. As for the truck driver, he has, we gradually discover, issues of his own with the opposite sex, and he returns her fire measure for measure. All in all, it's one of the most savage meet-cutes in memory.

For unlikely as it seems, and much to Matty's palpable disgust, a meet-cute is what this threatens to turn into. Despite their difference in age (he's 29) and temperament (he's an exuberant romantic and she is anything but) Johnny is drawn to Matty and won't be put off by what he considers her determination to "put mustard" on everything, killing all taste and feeling.

If all this starts to sound at all schematic, be assured that the strength of "Moscow, Belgium" is that it isn't. It turns out that ex-husband and love of her life Werner is still very much in the picture, and Johnny soon turns out to be a complex individual with a past that would give anyone pause.

All the characters in "Moscow, Belgium" come with warning labels attached. None of this is lost on the savvy Matty, who becomes completely fed up with everyone and makes an emotional speech to her daughter about the elusiveness of happiness in her life. What makes "Moscow, Belgium" stand out from the crowd is that Matty's options seem like real life dilemmas and not something cooked up for the cinema.

As those film jurors in Minsk realized, it's Sarafian who brings this film down to earth. With a face that is close to magical, able to believably express everything from joy to jagged rage, she won't allow this film to stray into Fantasyland.

Nothing will ever be easy for any of these characters, and that is why we care about them so.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Moscow, Belgium'

MPAA rating: No rating

Running time: 1 hour,

55 minutes

Playing: Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles

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