In the gripping Belgian film "La Promesse," the camera follows a middle-aged entrepreneur named Roger as he introduces his 15-year-old son Igor into the family business. It's not dairy farming or shoemaking or cooking up Belgian waffles. Roger & Son specialize in the exploitation of illegal immigrants.
For a fee -- an exorbitant one, of course -- Roger (Olivier Gourmet) secrets the illegals into the grimy industrial city of Seraing and provides them with falsified documents, decrepit housing and menial employment at dishearteningly low wages. The only real requirement in Roger's line of work -- aside from capacious greed -- is the necessity not to regard the immigrants as human beings.
Igor (Jeremie Renier) at first seems well-suited to the work. Although he still has the delicate frame and the porcelain skin of a child, Igor is already a petty thief (and a chain-smoking one at that) who pilfers from little old ladies without the slightest tremors of conscience. He is an eager apprentice, virtually a junior partner in his dad's enterprise, as skillful at avoiding official inspectors as he is negotiating fees with aliens who are desperately short of leverage. But in the course of "La Promesse," Igor uncomfortably discovers that he may not be growing into the man his father has raised him to be.
"La Promesse," written and directed by the brother team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, presents an unflinching view of the victimization of vulnerable people, but the center of the film is not the immigrant experience. It is the portrayal of a father-son relationship and that turning point where a child must choose between a loved parent and his own sense of morality.
Igor's defining moment begins when inspectors unexpectedly arrive at the complex where Roger houses the illegal immigrants. In trying to get away, an African immigrant named Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo) stumbles from some scaffolding and falls the ground. Badly injured, Hamidou extracts a promise from NTC Igor that he will take care of Hamidou's wife and baby son. Igor wants to rush Hamidou to the hospital and fashions a tourniquet around his bleeding leg. When Roger arrives at the scene he rips off the tourniquet and forbids any medical help, fearing the questions that would arise. Instead, he lets Hamidou die, and he forces Igor to help bury him in cement.
Igor is initially obedient to his father, but as he gets to know, respect and maybe a little bit love Hamidou's widow, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), who wants to know where her husband is, he begins to vacillate. He tries to salve his conscience by doing favors for Assita and finally even thwarts his father's pitiless efforts to drive her away. But he continues to lie to her about Hamidou's whereabouts, and the weight of that deception drives him deeper into conflict with his father, leading to a riveting, heart-rending confrontation between the two.
One of the strengths of "La Promesse" is that it does not completely demonize Roger. Yes, he's the lowest of lowlifes who's corrupting his own son (like a responsible father insisting that his son finish his homework, Roger forces Igor to pore over falsified passports before playing with his friends), and his occasional beatings of Igor are brutal. But Gourmet's blunt affect softens heartbreakingly whenever he looks at Igor. It is the face of utter adoration.
Unfortunately, Gourmet's subtle performance is the only one that stands out in "La Promesse." The Dardennes claim that the lack of professional actors in the film lends to its documentary effect, but it seems to me a mistake, particularly in regard to Renier. His acting is all in movement from here to there; his face
communicates none of the anguish he presumably feels.
The Dardennes made their reputations in Belgian documentaries, which may explain the journalistic passion abundantly evident in "La Promesse." It doesn't shrink from the xenophobia rampant in Europe. In one scene, Belgian men are shown urinating from a bridge onto Assita and her son on the ground below. Neither does the film sentimentalize the immigrants, who fully appreciate the Faustian bargain they have entered to start their new lives. They will give up anything, sell anything -- even their own bodies in some cases -- for the chance to avoid deportation.
To its credit, "La Promesse" does not resolve itself in an uplifting, Hollywood ending. It never suggests that Igor's struggle with conscience will lead to contentment for either him or Assita. Doing right, "La Promesse" says, is often as painful as doing wrong.
Starring Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet and Assita Ouedraogo
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Released by New Yorker Films
Rated Unrated (language, sexual innuendo)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 8/08/97