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La promesse was the breakthrough film of the Belgian directing duo Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, but it was hardly the brothers' first picture: By the time La promesse was released, in 1996, the Dardennes had been making documentary films, and the occasional fiction feature, for nearly 20 years. Perhaps that's why La promesse feels so vital and spontaneous. As the critic Christine Smallwood has noted, "The Dardennes' method stresses immediacy. Their films open with someone standing on a staircase, or being fired from a factory assembly line, or dialing a phone. Revelations and critical confessions erupt as unexpected blurts. The final scenes break off ambiguously. By withholding information, the Dardennes replace judgment with implication."
The implications - deeply moral ones - are clear from the first frame of La promesse. Fifteen-year-old Igor (played by Jrmie Renier, a young actor who would go on to appear regularly in the Dardennes' films) lives with his tough, gruff, lumbering father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet, another Dardennes regular) in Seraing, an industrial town in eastern Belgium. Igor has an apprenticeship at a local garage, but he's rarely there -- mostly, he assists his father in running various scams. Chiefly, Roger uses illegal immigrants as cheap labor; he allows them to live in a building he owns, but deducts exorbitant amounts for rent, heat and fake papers.
Igor looks up to Roger and doesn't see anything wrong with the way the two of them rustle up a living. But one day an African worker named Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo) dies after falling from scaffolding. With his dying breath, he asks Igor to promise to look after his wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and the couple's infant son. Roger, having ignored Igor's pleas to get Amidou to a hospital, buries the body in cement. That leaves Igor, a kid who has been raised with virtually no moral underpinning, to make a choice between honoring his promise to a dying man and continuing on the crooked path his father has laid out for him.
La promesse played various festivals and earned a great deal of acclaim for the Dardennes, who until then had been virtually unknown outside of Belgium. In the years since, all of the brothers' films -- among them Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), The Child (2005) and The Kid with a Bike (2011) - have been included in the Cannes Film Festival's main competition, and each film has won one of the festival's two major prizes. (Rosetta and The Son both won the Palme d'Or.)
All of the Dardennes' films focus on working-class life, often telling stories of disenfranchised individuals or immigrants, and most of them are set in Seraing, where the brothers were born and raised. The city is virtually a character in the films; as shot by the brothers' regular cinematographer Alain Marcoen, it's a slightly melancholy landscape, a patchwork of blocky concrete and nondescript but purposeful-looking roads, though it's not wholly unwelcoming. The Dardennes never let you forget that this is a place where people live and work, but also sometimes laugh and play - sometimes having a casual drink at the end of the day can make all the difference.
Though the Dardennes' work shows the influence of Italian neo-realist cinema, the brothers have honed a distinctive style that can't be traced to any single source. As Jean-Pierre Dardenne told interviewer Geoff Andrew in 2005, "We read Toni Morrison before La promesse. And one thing that impresses us about her writing...is how a reader is drawn into the story - you're never sure where you are, but little by little, clarity comes through."
The Dardennes' mode of storytelling is bracingly straightforward, dedicated to placing characters in a specific time and place, allowing the moral complications of these characters' lives to unfold gradually. But even if the Dardennes allow their stories to move slowly, their characters are never at rest: In a Dardenne Brothers' movie, people are always in motion, moving from point A to point B decisively, generally driven by inexplicable human restless. As the critic Kent Jones notes, "The drama of [La promesse] is played out in the beautiful Renier's face and slim body, his darting movements and slight hesitations, his small resistances to the always unspooling dictates of Roger, whose rolling energies are devoted to keeping all the particulars of his trafficking business (transport, payments, heating the rooms, hiding all the occupants when the inspectors arrive) as buttoned-down as his son's affection and obedience."
Igor is manipulated and controlled by his father; he seems to expect nothing more out of life. That's why his gradual moral awakening makes for such a moving and distinctive coming-of-age story. There's no sentimentality in La promesse; terrible things happen, and there are moments when you wonder if Igor will ever be able to escape the life that seems to have been laid out for him since the day of his birth. But if the Dardenne Brothers are fixated on realism, they have no use for fatalism. La promesse may end ambiguously, but it doesn't end unhappily. This movie offers its characters something harder and more complicated than abject misery; it offers them hope.
Producers: Hassen Daldoul, Luc Dardenne, Claude Waringo
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardennna, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen
Music: Jean-Marie Billy, Denis M'Punga>Film Editing: Marie-Hlne Dozo
Cast: Jrmie Renier (Igor), Olivier Gourmet (Roger), Assita Ouedraogo (Assita), Jean-Michel Balthazar), Frdric Bodson (The garage boss), Katarzyna Chrzanowska, Florian Delain (Riri), Hachemi Haddad (Nabil), Alain Holtgenm (Le postier), Genevive Joly-Provost (Genevive), Sophie Leboutte, Rasmane Ouedraogo (Amidou), Norbert Rutili
by Stephanie Zacharek