The Promise

The Promise


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Promise of the title of this Dardennes brothers film is heavy with meaning. There is the verbalised promise that the young protagonist makes to a dying man but there is also a bigger notion of the word - the promise of prosperity for an illegal immigrant, the promise of having something to show for your life, even if it is only a house, and the inner promise of a boy in difficult circumstances which may or may not be realised. Beyond this, The Promise is also a film about debt, for what is a promise if not something that we say we will owe the person we make it to?

But what happens when your debt is an unspoken one to the person who has raised you? That is the problem and question that Igor (Jérémie Renier) - his name recalling that other, more famous put-upon side-kick - in the Dardennes' film. His Dad (Olivier Gourmet) might be willing to leave his mark on his son, both in the matching ring he gives him and a cock-eyed tattoo, but he insists: "Call me Roger." Whatever name is applied, the man is a working-lass bully, making his living - though by no means a lucrative one - as a slum landlord for illegal immigrants. Impoverishing his tenants by degrees, a franc or two for gas here, an extra few dollars for over-looking their prostitution business there, Roger also uses them on his less-than-legal building site. Igor, meanwhile, is expected to drop everything, including his mechanics apprenticeship, if Roger needs him to oil the wheels of business.

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An accident on the building site, that death-knell promise and Roger's subsequent self-preservationist reaction leave Igor facing a moral quandry that will have consequences not only for him but for illegal immigrant Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and her baby son. The Dardennes hold us tight to the action, theirs is a world where hand-held verite and a seat in the back of the car feel right. And despite its depiction of the everyday evils that men do, reaching its zenith in a scene in which Assita is literally pissed on by some passing strangers, The Promise has a strong humanist heartbeat.

This humanism and careful use of colour - particularly reds and blues - would make it a good double-bill with Aki Kaurismäki Le Havre, with the colours here nudging you to remember this may feel real but it is also a fable, of sorts. The Dardennes' film is unfussy and the revelations small but that is why it is so affecting. We understand the moral maze facing Igor and are as undecided about which way he should jump as he is. The question is, which promises are made to be broken?

Reviewed on: 13 Jan 2013
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The son of a shady slum landlord faces a moral quandry after he makes a promise to a dying man.

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Writer: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Starring: Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo, Rasmane Ouedraogo, Frédéric Bodson

Year: 1996

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Belgium


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