Testing The Bonds Of Family And Duty

Posted: July 23, 1997

In one of the many striking images in La Promesse, a Belgian teenager sits at the kitchen table and writes slowly, like a kid with some tough homework. But the assignment isn't math; it's forging papers for illegal aliens.

Codirected by Belgium's Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, brothers who branched out into features after a successful career in documentaries, La Promesse is a brilliant exploration of guilt's long reach and the limits of innocence in the heart of Igor, a troubled 15-year-old. The movie turns its title into a dual irony, since the promise the teenager makes to a dying immigrant worker impinges on the promise of his own youth.

The Dardennes made their name with histories of the labor movement in postwar Belgium. La Promesse's setting is Seraing, a dreary post-industrial suburb of Liege that seems like a blighted moonscape. Against this stark backdrop, Igor and his loutish father, Roger, go about their business - an enterprise that comes close to modern slave-trading. For cash - American dollars only, please - Roger smuggles in illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa. Then he houses them in filthy tenements for exorbitant rents, forges papers and sends them off to jobs that pay a fraction of the going rate.

Igor does the peripheral odd jobs in the operation and, at the outset of La Promesse, works in the spirit of a youngster helping out with the family chores. He has the cool air of a boy who has been forced to grow up without benefit of a real childhood.

Despite his warped existence, there is hope for Igor. He likes cars and is apprenticed to a mechanic at the local garage in a chance at the straight world that is soon imperiled by the family business.

With spare, deft strokes, the Dardennes present Igor with an agonizing choice. During a raid on one of his father's buildings, Hamidou, an African illegal, falls from some scaffolding. Igor wants to get Hamidou to a hospital, but Roger vetoes the idea because the police will ask questions. With his dying breath, Hamidou extracts a promise from Igor that he will look after the wife and baby Hamidou leaves behind.

Nauseated, Igor helps his father dispose of the body. But he, too, has a question: Are blood ties stronger than the obligation he assumed through his promise? Igor soon discovers that the two are mutally exclusive.

His father, seeking a way to silence Hamidou's widow, Assita, tries to sell her into prostitution. That is the last straw for Igor, who helps her escape and, in the process, begins the far-more-complicated task of breaking away from his father.

Although their material is inherently melodramatic and an invitation to overblown sentimentality, the Dardennes present it with an admirable discretion. They make great use of their locations, with dilapidated factories and crumbling houses serving as a vivid metaphor for the moral decay they chart.

La Promesse is a compelling look at issues that - in a world where ethnic frictions grow more tense, even as national boundaries disappear - really are universal.

LA PROMESSE * * * 1/2 Produced by Luc Dardenne and Hassen Daldoul, written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, photography by Alain Marcoen and Benoit Dervaux, music by Jean-Marie Billy and Denis M'Punga, distributed by New Yorker Films. In French with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Igor - Jeremie Renier

Roger - Olivier Gourmet

Hamidou - Rasmane Ouedraogo

Assita - Assita Ouedraogo

Parent's guide: no MPAA rating (violence, profanity, mature themes)

Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse

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