Race relations and tensions, among other hot topics, are all over the news nowadays, so it seems only appropriate to have watched the debut narrative feature by the Belgian filmmaking duo Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne this weekend. La Promesse, unlike its immediate successor Rosetta (which I've waxed poetic about over here) bears the marks of your standard plot-driven film, yet the deliberate aspects of its screenplay never fog the documentarian lens through which the filmmakers observe their subjects.
Here's the gist: Igor, a Belgian teenager in the once-bustling but now-gasping-for-breath factory town of Seraing, works at an auto shop by day and helps Roger, his fatherly caretaker, house undocumented workers in their apartment complex by night. One such illegal immigrant, Amidou, is joined by his wife, Assita, and their newborn son, fresh off the boar from Burkina Faso. After taking a perilous fall from a scaffolding while frantically trying to flee the apartment's premises during an inspection by a labor officer, Amidou while bleeding to death asks the wide-eyed and quivering-lipped Igor to promise to look after his wife and son. Igor insists on getting Amidou to the hospital but Roger, having none of this “love thy neighbor” malarky, denies him help and instead disposes of Amidou's slowly-dying body behind the building.
Assita is quick to figure out that something's afoot; unluckily, Roger capitalizes on Amidou's long history of gambling addiction and unpaid debts to explain away his absence as an expected flight from debt collectors (with whom Assita has an uncomfortable and corroborative encounter). Igor, unsure how to respond to his “dad”'s moral callousness in the face of his own sense of duty to keep his promise to Amidou, uneasily feigns ignorance until further actions by Roger to do away with Assita for good prompt him to steal away with woman and child in Roger's van.
On his own with Assita, Igor's eyes are widened to the reality of being an African immigrant in Belgium. Assita's skin color alone makes her an obvious target for street ruffians. More problematic, her deeply-rooted spiritual beliefs prompt Assita to refuse help from and even blame Igor when her child falls ill. All while trying to work out what exactly to do with Assita and son and how best to help them without risking total alienation, Igor agonizes over the question of whether to finally confess that Amidou isn't just on the run from debt collectors as Assita still assumes.
The Dardenne brothers are widely recognized in the European and arthouse cinema circuits for their compassionate realism. While the situations and stories depicted in their films are hardly ever easy to swallow, the humanity the brothers impart to each of their characters authenticates the vision of reality they bring to the screen. Roger may be a terrible father figure and a worse human being, yet he genuinely loves Igor and tries to drive that point home on numerous encounters with his pseudo-son (their exact relation is never fully explained, one puzzle of many left to the viewer to contemplate).
Accompanying the Dardennes' documentarian approach to filmmaking is a vitality that renders La Promesse as dynamic as any formalist action flick. The camera slingshots around corners and down stairwells as it attempts to follow the unpredictable paths the characters take. The editing is brisk and precise: not a single shot lasts longer than necessary for establishing essential information, though poignant scenes unravel in single takes to underscore tension and pathos. “Economical” is the term that always comes up in reviews of the Dardennes' films, and I have no problem reapplying it here for the umpteenth time.
The sound engineers on La Promesse are kept just as busy as the camera operators and editors. Although the film has no composed soundtrack, the Dardennes elevate the quotidian noises of Seraing's auto shops, construction sites, and highways to the level of a symphony. With so few frills to distract us, the viewer becomes highly attuned to even the feeblest of hums and scratches; the induced hypersensitivity to our onscreen surroundings places us in shoes similar to those of Igor, who by the very nature of his and Roger's line of business must constantly stay alert and on his toes in the event that authorities should arrive and trample upon their foster community of immigrants.
La Promesse does not match the singular achievement of Rosetta, where insistence on character above all ravages narrative conventionality at every opportunity, but to its credit it's a much more (dare I say it) enjoyable film to watch. Whereas Rosetta can hardly catch a break—and refuses to take one even on the chances when she could—Igor partakes in the expected life of a Belgian adolescent: going to a karaoke bar with Roger, building a go kart with his buddies.
Moreover his complicated relationship with Assita gradually gives way to something more akin to camaraderie, a process by which both Igor and the audience learn how we may seek out friendship and trust with people whose cultures, beliefs, and, yes, skin colors clash so jarringly with our own. La Promesse is often heartbreaking, though never heart-shattering, and while its open-book ending will frustrate some viewers, its depiction of the complex interplay of clashing moral compasses is more than reason enough to give the film a shot, no matter your cinematic preferences.