La Promesse, 1996

There is a childlike euphoria that comes over Igor’s (Jeremie Renier) face as he and his friends run a noisy, traffic-impeding go-cart down the busy city streets. But Igor is far from the image of a naive innocent oblivious to the ways of the world. At the age of fifteen, he has left school, works as an apprentice at a service station, and assists his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), in running an illegal immigrant smuggling, housing, and construction racket. The film opens to a revealing portrait of the underhanded, opportunistic Igor as he steals an elderly woman’s wallet under the pretense of fixing her car, and then sends her away on a fruitless trip to recover the missing item. After taking the money, he buries the wallet behind the shop, and casually returns to the garage where he is learning how to weld. His halfhearted attempt at an honest vocation is again cut short, this time, by the sound of Roger’s car horn, impatiently summoning him to help “process” the latest group of illegal immigrants: collecting their passports in order to forge residence and working papers; renting out cramped and unsanitary rooms in a dilapidated tenement for exorbitant fees; hiring them to work for substandard wages at his construction business. Among the group is a woman named Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) who, along with her baby, has come to Belgium in order to join her husband Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo). However, their reunion would prove to be short-lived. After receiving a telephone call that officials are scheduled to conduct an inspection at their worksite, Igor leaves the service station in order to outrun the authorities and send the workers away. In his haste, Amidou is critically injured when he falls from the scaffolding, and, in his final words to Igor, asks the young man to look after his wife and child. Fearing prosecution, Roger ignores Igor’s pleas to take Amidou to the hospital for proper medical attention and instead, covers his body with canvas and leaves him to die. As Roger then plots to send Assita away and figuratively bury the memory of their shameful complicity, Igor finds his allegiance tested between his devotion to his father, and his promise to a dying man.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne create a caustic, poignant, and harrowing portrait of maturity, accountability, and sense of duty in La Promesse. Shot in natural environment using cinema-verite styled camerawork, the jarring, visually unpolished appearance of the film reflects the raw, emotionally honest, and often disturbing examination of the dehumanizing plight of illegal immigrants, and a young man’s evolution towards compassion and acceptance of personal responsibility. As Igor hands over the keys to his beloved go-cart to a friend, he not only relinquishes the vestiges of his childhood, but also accepts the consequences of his culpability. Inevitably, it is this triumph of the conscience – the courage to show humanity in the face of intolerance and cruelty – that redeems his misguided life.

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