La Promesse

on June 16, 1997 by Alex Albanese
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   For more than 20 years, Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been making documentaries together. Their subject matter has usually centered on the Leftist worker movements of the 1960s; their preference has been for a directorial style that is admittedly "theatrical" and subjective. Now, moving away from the constraints of "reality, to which we were accountable," the duo has turned to fiction features. With "La Promesse," their third, they have created a work of great emotional depth and impact that ironically draws much of its power from low-key, naturalistic performances captured with a shooting style that is more often associated with traditional documentary making.
   Set in the post-industrial limbo of a dead factory town, "La Promesse" follows 15-year-old Igor, a boy learning how to be a small-time hustler from his father Roger. Together they toil in the town's only growth industry: the exploitation of illegal immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe by providing them with false papers, flophouses and off-the-books construction work. Igor's moral awakening comes with a covered-up accidental death of an African illegal. By revealing or withholding the truth, Igor will either betray his father or the promise he made to the dying man to look after his wife and infant.
   The Dardennes have written a compelling, believable script and have drawn excellent performances from mostly unknown or inexperienced actors. But the truly wonderful thing about "La Promesse" is how the story is told. The film's style and structure seem spontaneous, almost casual, completely obscuring all the thought and work necessary to achieve that effect. The camera is always in just the right place, with many scenes shot in continuous handheld takes that move with, and pan between, actors instead of cutting. And the brothers have the courage to allow emotionally significant events to simply transpire in wide unbroken shots, often with a major character's back to the camera. This type of approach could easily seem forced and gimmicky in less skillful hands, but here it is an integral part of a remarkable cinematic achievement.    Starring Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet and Assta Ouedraogo. Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Produced by Luc Dardenne and Hassen Daldoul. A New Yorker release. Drama. French-language; English subtitles. Unrated. Running time: 93 min.
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