Actors Barbara Sarafian and Jurgen Delnaet movingly highlight the many joys and bitter disappointments that relationships bring, while also maintaining a level of pragmatism about how no matter how much you love someone, you can never really know them.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see a movie like “Moscow, Belgium” in which the actors look like real people, proudly sporting wrinkles (remember those?), flabby arms and receding hairlines.
Yes, the imperfect makes perfect in this romantic dramedy in which a jilted 41-year-old Flemish mother of three is courted by a 29-year-old trucker with a secret past. They’re losers and they look like losers, which makes them surprisingly beautiful once you’re utterly absorbed in their messy, blue-collar lives.
And what rivets you is the level of reality that Barbara Sarafian and Jurgen Delnaet bring to their extraordinarily ordinary characters over the course of a tumultuous romance rife with the sort of old-fashioned friction that you thought died with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” Director Cristophe Van Rompaey takes advantage, too, playing up the kissing and feuding to optimum effect in telling a tale refreshingly free of the snobbishness and condescension that normally accompanies movies in which the leads live far outside Bill Gates’ tax bracket.
They’re poor, but they’re proud. And they’re not about to let broken marriages and failed dreams get in the way of their happiness. Or are they? That’s the evolving mystery in a script by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs that stays a little too true to the romantic-comedy formula, yet manages to standout by making its characters work overtime to overcome a series of highly plausible obstacles – not the least of which is their 12-year age difference.
It’s never really an issue with Delnaet’s Johnny. He loves Sarafian’s Matty, wrinkles and all, telling her that she is like no other woman he’s known, including Nathalie (the “love of my life”), who left him for a priggish attorney and took everything he owned except his dignity and his beloved lemon-yellow rig.
To him, Matty is the Mona Lisa. But since her husband (unctuous Johan Hildenbergh), an art professor, left her for one of his 22-year-old students, Matty has only seen herself as old, ugly and undesirable. How Johnny goes about convincing her otherwise makes for many a swoon, even a tear.
It’s all part of the magic that “Moscow, Belgium” (the title drawn from the neighborhood in Ghent where the movie is set) consistently conjures up, even after the story takes a darker turn once Johnny’s past and Matty’s hopes for her husband’s return come dramatically into play.
How Van Rompaey manages to keep the mood light and frothy during these surprisingly tense moments is a testament to the level of skill the first-time director brings to the table.
It also helps that he’s assembled a strong supporting cast that includes Anemone Valcke as the oldest of Matty’s three children, Vera, a soon-to-be 17-year-old with a sharp, witty tongue and an unconventional romance of her own. Valcke flat steals every scene she’s in, but never enough to overshadow Sarafian, who’s simply superb.
Resembling Frances McDormand, both in her looks and acting cache, Sarafian draws on almost every emotion from cantankerous malcontent to smitten schoolgirl over the course of Matty’s relationship with Johnny, a romance that begins on an adversarial note with a parking lot fender-bender and quickly progresses from bickering to bopping in the bouncing bunk of Johnny’s truck.
Through it all, they movingly highlight the many joys and bitter disappointments that relationships bring, while also maintaining a level of pragmatism about how no matter how much you love someone, you can never really know them; proving faith is just as important as fate in making love last.
That’s the ultimate of many truths in “Moscow, Belgium,” but it’s one you won’t soon forget.
Reach Al Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MOSCOW, BELGIUM (Not rated) Cast includes Barbara Sarafian and Jurgen Delnaet . Directed by Cristophe Van Rompaey. In Flemish with English subtitles.