The earliest film in the brand new Artificial Eye Dardenne brothers boxset, La Promesse was unquestionably their international breakthrough. Up to that point, the brothers had made documentaries that established them in the insular world of Belgian documentary cinema. They made two fiction films before La Promesse that ended up dissolving into the mists of time, only to rediscover the joy of cinema through making this one.
Throughout their career, the style they use has remained as simple as their themes – working class life, moral choices, and the plight of immigrants, and other vulnerable people on the edges of society. La Promesse concerns young Igor (Jérémie Renier) and his father Roger (Oliver Gourmet) who ferry illegal immigrants into their Belgian hometown. They exploit the immigrants, charging them extortionate rates for rent and putting them to work on a house that the pair intend to live in, even handing some in to the police in exchange for the authorities looking the other way. During one unannounced labor inspection, while the immigrants are escaping the premises, a Nigerian named Amidou falls to his death. His young wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) had arrived in the country just a few days before, with a baby in tow. Amidou makes Igor promise to take care of his wife – “la promesse” of the title – and, to a certain extent, he does. Igor and his father hide the body under the walkway leading to the back door, which Assita walks in and out of every day.
Suffice to say, the problems that Igor has as he struggles with his own ethical revelations are all the more compelling and affecting because of the power and honesty with which they are conveyed. The acting is fantastic – both Renier and Gourmet are completely believable in their roles, Gourmet in particular is perfect as the slimy, seedy, somewhat dim-witted but street-smart Roger. And the supporting cast of immigrants are all played incredible realistically, like someone stuck in a camera into these people’s lives and watched them as they went about their business.
The film won’t provide much entertainment outside the semi-rarified world of foreign arthouse, though – it’s too gritty to be enjoyed on a Saturday night with mates, but then this story was never intended for that audience. If you want to broaden your filmic horizons a little bit, watch La Promesse. You won’t regret it.