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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 von Busack

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 they have all over Europe, who is seated, expertly playing a waltz on a red piano accordion for small change. (The accordion music follows Matty throughout the film, though.)

We're in Belgium, the Ohio of Europe; the exact city is later identified as Ledeberg, an exurb of Ghent. The family loads up its rusty subcompact. Distracted by the one item she forgot, Matty slams her car in reverse and slams into 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. None but the foolish heart gets a heart tattooed on himself with the name of a lost love. Johnny shows just such a tattoo on his chest to Matty on the first date. 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. 

The same trick of surprising prettiness is in the cityscapes; Matty's family lives in a freeway-view tower, but the camera angle changes, and you can see medieval steeples out the window. The gauche bar where Matty and Johnny hang out looks candle-lighted, and the knotty pine walls flatter the pale, freckly faces.

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.

In the last chapter of the film, a new character turns up, and she talks about how she's studying to work in a hospice: her view is that those who know they're dying are more "real" than the rest of us. Moscow, Belgium has that kind of realism, a lack of nonsense and pretense. Although it's European, it is as accessible as a box of pizza and a six-pack of beer. The final muddy (and slightly bloody) squabble between Matty and Johnny is part of the film's Flemish sensibility. Mud and blood is really all that we are. Between men and women, only the sexual spark and a little mutual respect matters—even if it's just respect for Matty's good right hook.

Movie Times MOSCOW, BELGIUM  (Unrated; 102 min.), directed by Christophe Van Rompaey, written by Jean-Claude Van Pijckeghem and Pat van Beirs, photographed by Ruben Impens and starring Barbara Sarafian, opens Feb. 27 in San Francisco and March 6 at the Camera Cinemas.

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