Morality is a given in the movies; everyone, even the worst of creatures, knows if they're bad or good. In "La Promesse," an exceptional film from Belgium, all of that is reversed as a sense of right and wrong struggles to emerge in a young man who never knew there was a difference. The conflicts involved are intense and absorbing, proving that compelling moral dilemmas make for the most dramatic cinema.
An exciting discovery at both last year's Directors' Fortnight at Cannes and the New York Film Festival, "La Promesse" makes being politically relevant and philosophically thoughtful so simple and involving that the story seems to be telling itself. Written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, a pair of filmmaking brothers, it is made with such unobtrusive sureness that it's able to exert great power without forcing anything.
Though relatively new to features, the Dardenne brothers have 20 years of documentary work in Belgium behind them, and their use of hand-held cameras and probing close-ups gives "La Promesse" the urgency and immediacy of total authenticity. Toss in unknown but persuasive actors and characters whose reality is unmistakable and you get an idea why this film is as bracing as it is.
"La Promesse" is set on the outskirts of the Belgian city of Liege and centers on a 15-year-old apprentice auto mechanic named Igor (Jeremie Renier). An opportunistic sneak thief and smooth liar, Igor is like a small animal with dirty blond hair, casually amoral because in his world the opposite has never been presented as an option.
Igor's universe is completely controlled by his father, Roger (Belgian stage actor Olivier Gourmet). A pudgy, bearded and petty despot, Roger has a lie or a threat or a beating for every occasion. Hot-tempered, violent, a master of casual betrayals, Roger puts together scams without end, but he also cares for his son and values their almost symbiotic relationship.
Roger's business is dealing in illegal immigrants--Turks, Ghanaians, Romanians and Koreans--who sneak into Belgium looking for a better life. Roger hides them in a clandestine rooming house, charging them exorbitant fees for false identity papers while collaborating with the police when a raid is needed to satisfy the local politicians.
In all of this, Igor, made in his father's image and hardened by sharing his lifestyle, is a willing second-in-command. Part man, part boy, he spends the spare moment when he's not conniving with the old man putting together a go-kart with his young friends.
Igor's life begins to change when Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and her small child arrive from Burkina Faso to join husband and father Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo) in Roger's boarding house. Assita's individuality intrigues Igor, and then a jolt of fate shoves their lives closer. Hamidou has an accident working illegally, Roger refuses to take him to the hospital, and he dies after making Igor agree to take care of his wife and child, the promise of the title.
It's difficult to do justice to how subtly the film develops from here, how unflinching it depends on documentary-style realism and expressive faces to make its points. Though the question of romance never arises, Igor becomes increasingly protective of Assita, which puts him in conflict with his father, the only person who's ever cared about him. It's a predicament that is as difficult as it is compelling.
"La Promesse's" actors have differing levels of experience, with Jeremie Renier, an impressive natural, having the least and Assita Ouedraogo (whose first trip to Europe was to make this film) having appeared in three films of fellow countryman Idrissa Ouedraogo. But they all work so seamlessly here we feel we're eavesdropping on a moral rebellion that is being played out for the highest possible stakes.
Among the many things it does right, "La Promesse" refuses to even consider glib solutions. This film understands that moral choices are a painful, troublesome business, that decisions to do the right thing are not simple to take and hardly make things easier. Nothing in life takes more courage, and no kind of filmmaking offers greater rewards.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: intense adult situations and themes.
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Jeremie Renier: Igor
Olivier Gourmet: Roger
Assita Ouedraogo: Assita
Rasmane Ouedraogo: Hamidou
Released by New Yorker Films. Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Producers Luc Dardenne, Hassen Daldoul. Screenplay Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Cinematographers Alain Marcoen, Benoit Dervaux. Editor Marie-Helene Dozo. Costumes Monic Parelle. Music Jean-Marie Billy. Set design Igor Gabriel. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.