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KEEP ON TRUCKIN': Barbara Sarafian and Jurgen Delnaet don't get off to a good start in 'Moscow, Belgium.'

Mona Lisa

Love perseveres even in hard times in the fine romance 'Moscow, Belgium'

By Richard VonBusack

Matty (Barbara Sarafian), a stocky woman in a fraying sweater, approaches the camera. Her hair is dyed yellow, growing out into a natural strawberry blonde. There are pouches under her eyes, and she's in a bad mood, doing a slo-mo trudge through the megalomarket, with two children bobbing up and down trying to convince her to pick up some extra goodies.

Outside the market, she barely (if at all) registers one of those first-rate Slavic street musicians. We're in Belgium, the Ohio of Europe. The family loads up its rusty subcompact. Distracted by the one item she forgot, Matty slams her car in reverse and hits a big rig with an expensive but not injurious thump.

Moscow, Belgium starts out with a fight, and it will end with one. As Lewis Black says of Yiddish, Flemish is "a phlegm-based language," and no tongue on Earth sounds more like Klingon. When the truck driver Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet) calls Matty a crazy bitch, it sounds like a particularly juicy threat against Capt. Kirk.

After much temperamental, saliva-choked invective, the cops sort the accident. Matty drops off her kids with their father, Werner (Johan Heldenbergh), who is currently living with his young mistress, a former pupil. As the days progress, we get an overview of Matty's tasks: cooking up blood sausage for her family, working at a post office where her most regular customer is a mortician, sending off death notices.

Johnny, having gotten Matty's address, arrives to chivalrously fix the broken trunk of her car, and also to see if she might be interested in a drink. The idea seems a little doomed. The two heartbroken people are both on opposite sides of their third decade (Matty's 41, Johnny is 29). Although a bit thick, Johnny is one romantic trucker. Slightly lit up by booze, he says that Matty reminds him of Mona Lisa.

Sarafian is closer to Melissa Leo than to Mona Lisa. Still, the reliable trick in this charming and practical romance is the way it keeps revealing beauty out of apparent homeliness. Matty dresses in the Belgian K-Mart's finest, but her body hasn't wasted away; when her golden leg emerges from the curtains covering the sleeper in Johnny's big rig, that leg has a fine shape to it. As in the case of Leo, there is a leonine quality to Sarafian's shaggy hair. The rough-looking face gives up some dazzling smiles, but not to just everyone or just anything.

But there's another party to complicate this affair. Matty's co-worker notes that sexual passion lasts exactly six months. It's been five months and a couple of weeks since Werner left Matty for his little girlfriend, and now he's back trying to chat her up and start things afresh. And Werner has done some research on the trucker, and it turns out Johnny has an unpleasant past: he's spent some time in jail for fighting. Moreover, Werner is a better catch because he's a teacher and an intellectual--as Werner would be the first to explain.

If a lady in a movie is given a choice between a goodhearted crudester and a sophisticated cheater, it's fairly easy to guess how everything will come out. Still, Moscow, Belgium is a film in which only the fleshy things matter. Director Christophe van Rompaey's lovable working-class romance has the common sense to remind us that the grave is the only certainty, which is the reason for the running joke about the aged undertaker's frequent calls at Matty's desk.

Movie Times MOSCOW, BELGIUM (Unrated; 102 min.), directed by Christophe Van Rompaey and starring Barbara Sarafian, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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