La promesse (1997; on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime), written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, shares a number of themes with their later films: sons and fathers with less-than-healthy relationships (The Boy With a Bike); someone who has to decide between comfort and doing the right thing (The Unknown Girl); and, as indicated by the title, fidelity (The Child). But the most prominent here is the plight of immigrants trying to make their lives better, and the cultural conflicts often produced by immigration and found at the blurred edges of society (explored from a different angle in the Dardennes’ most recent film Young Achmed).
The most impressive thing to me about the Dardennes is their ability to find the apparently calm, deep currents of the most significant human stories beneath the froth and spoondrift that might drive a more propagandistic piece. There are a lot of films about the problems that exist between classes and cultures, especially as politicized and polarizing as those problems have become. It is relatively easy to tell a story that remains on the surface, filled with talking-point cliches. It is much harder to tell a story set within those contexts, but filled with all the complication and difficulty that attend real people’s lives. The Dardennes tell those stories consistently.
La promesse tells the story of Igor (the Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) and his father, Roger, who run a sort of half-way hotel for immigrants newly arrived in Belgium. Roger gives them residence papers and a place to live, while exploiting their vulnerable status. Igor seems at first to be content gathering passports, filling out residence applications, and taking money for his father, while apprenticing at a mechanic’s and lining his own pockets via theft.
It is the arrival from Burkina Faso of Hamidou’s wife, Assita, and their child that starts to drive a wedge between Igor and his father. Igor watches through a hole in the wall while Assita cuts up her suitcase to make a bed for her child. Later, when he finds her doing an African folk ritual to drive evil spirits from the child, he says, “There are no evil spirits here.” She says, “Yes, there are. They see us but we don’t see them.” It is not until later that Igor realizes that he is participating in that evil.
Everyone is making promises: they will pay people back; they will take people to this or that place; they will provide this; they will make this happen. There is the possible but distant promise of a better life in a richer country. But in the midst of all those promises, mostly broken or unattainable, the promise that drives Igor is the one he makes to a dying Hamidou: look out for my wife and child.
In at least three other Dardenne films, Renier plays dead-beat dads breaking their promises, but here Igor is committed to his word. He has a lot of reasons not to be. It’s going to cost him money, time, comfort, stability, and we don’t know what else. It seems, in fact, that he has no reason to keep his promise other than the fact that he made it. Assita doesn’t know about it. She has no expectations of him, and doesn’t particularly want or need him. But he makes a series of choices in her favor, strengthened in part by his growing antipathy to his father’s actions, both past and present.
Out of the films by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne that I’ve seen, I can’t think of one that doesn’t contain a character similar to Igor, who perseveres in doing what is right, in spite of every reason not to do so. Though the larger, impersonal forces surrounding these characters threaten to overwhelm them, the Dardennes tell the stories of people who somehow manage to shine a little light in an often dark world. And although there is very little explicit religion in their films, their central characters reflect divine illumination in their faithfulness, steadfastness, forgiveness, endurance, and compassion.