Sins of the Father

Too frequently, movies that confront pressing social issues turn into morality plays. The protagonists are nothing but victims of the Modern Order, which is perpetuated by antagonists whose motivations go no further than, well, perpetuating it. Rarely do we get to see the abstract moral issues surrounding racism, the exploitation of undocumented workers and other evils of urban life explored past the level of "oppressor bad, oppressee good." But in La Promesse, the coming-of-age story of a Belgian teenager, filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne relate a verite tale that manages both to distinguish sharply between good and evil and make its characters recognizably human.

The centerpiece of the film is 15-year-old Igor (Jeremie Renier), a specimen of that Dickensian breed for whom traditional morality is an alien concept. Igor's Fagin is his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), who wins the family bread by bringing illegal Turkish, Croatian, Romanian and African laborers to the town of Seraing, on the outskirts of Liege, for low-pay construction work, and by acting as slumlord for the substandard, overpriced housing in which they live. When city officials need an illegal-immigrant bust to satisfy the mayor, Roger takes a payoff to set up a few of his own workers for arrest. With Dad as his only example (Igor's mother is neither seen nor discussed), the boy finds lying and theft easy; he's just as casual about lifting an old woman's pension money as he is about bluffing authorities to protect Roger's labor operation.

It's clear that Igor doesn't understand the weight of the exploitation with which he assists his father when it's compared to what he does in his spare time. When he can, he goes joy-riding on a homemade go-cart with two other kids who are, visibly and somewhat ironically, not native Belgians. The workers in Roger's tenement are at least alive, healthy and behind closed doors, and those whom the police collar are forgotten easily enough. Rather than deliberate denial, Igor's perspective is one limited to the immediate present; if the workers are too afraid of Roger's ferocity to ask for better treatment, if the Romanians aren't heard from again, their problems simply don't exist. Igor's go-cart and the fun he has boozing it up with his father are the here and now, the tangible. Just as tangible is the death of one of his father's workers, Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), who's killed in a construction accident. As Hamidou is dying, Igor promises to take care of the man's wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo).

Igor cannot evade the reality of Hamidou's death. Roger refuses to take Hamidou to the hospital for fear of blowing his operation's cover; it's not clear whether medical help would have saved him. Then, Roger forces Igor to help hide the body in a cement-packed grave. It's at this point that Renier shines as an actor: His facial expressions and body language convey the immediacy that the plot requires. Another young actor might have resorted to histrionics or long-winded Extreme Measuresstyle talk; but according to the directors, Renier himself elided portions of Igor's dialogue.

Similarly, Gourmet's blankly casual portrayal illuminates the root of Roger's evil: In every instance related to his workers, he's brusque and businesslike because he's dealing with things, not people. Only when he and Igor are involved in some completely different activity does he show any sign of enjoyment or even emotion; away from the workers, he can be the loving father he likes to envision himself.

Both the body in the back yard and Assita and her son at home keep the death at the forefront of Igor's mind. As he comes more and more to Assita's defense, he's forced to face the question: Does his father love him, or only his willingness to play the devoted son and right-hand kid? And what does Igor himself value more -- his father's affection or the self-respect he earns from refusing to help sell Assita as a whore? The deported Romanians' fate may be a mystery, but (as is deftly implied by a couple of scenes) prostitution is all too real a part of Igor's world, and he can't avoid it.

Of course there's no happily ever after, because life has no happily ever after. (Even so, the film's ending is so abrupt as to be puzzling; the cutoff seems to come about 20 minutes too soon.) But La Promesse shows that, with experience, people can learn. That point, combined with the specificity of the characters, transforms what could have been a plodding "issue" film into a memorable movie. It reminds us that individuals, not statistics, are at the core of all social ills -- and at the core of all victories over them.

La Promesse.
Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. With Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo and Rasmane Ouedraogo.

Not rated.
93 minutes.

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