La Promesse (aka The Promise) (1996): Dardenne Brothers Brilliant Feature Debut

The internationally acclaimed filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre (ne 1951) and Luc (ne 1954) Dardenne had directed and produced documentary films for two decades before turning to writing, directing and producing features.

In 1996, the Dardenne brothers made a splashy feature film breakthrough with the critically acclaimed  “La Promesse” (“The Promise”), starring Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, who have both since become regular actors in the Dardenne films. After 1997, all of their films have been selected in the competition of the Cannes Film Festival.  “La Promesse” was followed by the Cannes Fest Palme d’Or and critical hit “Rosetta,” in 1999, starring Emilie Dequenne and Olivier Gourmet.

“La Promesse” (“The Promise”) centers on Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a burly, domineering working-class mechanic who operates a tenement, which he rents out to immigrant workers with the help of his 15-year old son Igor (Jérémie Renier).   For money, Roger promises illegal immigrants permits, then puts them to work on his construction site. When West African (Burkina Faso) illegal Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo) falls from a scaffolding, Roger refuses to take him to a hospital. As a result of Roger’s poor treatment, Hamidou dies, but not before he makes the teenager promise to take care of his wife (Assita Ouedraogo) and baby.

However, keeping that promise forces Igor to become a man defined by his own code of ethics, even if it means betraying his own father. The ensuing emotionally powerful coming-of-age film depicts the gradual evolution of a humanist consciousness in a youngster who has never given an account to himself about his (or his father’s) actions, always living in the shadow of a tyrant.  The tale is set against a context that has been relatively unexplored, Europe as a region of entrepreneurs desperate to grab their share of a changing economy, and foreign laborers desperate to make a living.

Igor would like to finish his mechanic’s apprenticeship and hang out with his friends but Roger, exercising his patriarchal authority, claims he’s needed right there in the family business.    Despite harsh material conditions and huge gap in social background, a new, meaningful bond emerges between the boy and the immigrant family.  Intense and risky in some moments, lyrical in others, the film bursts with the kind of spiritual humanity seldom seen in American pictures.

The Dardennes imbue their saga with raw immediacy that recalls the Italian neo-realist style. It’s a testament to their talent, skill, and sensitivity that their film ends up on a hopeful note, which is well earned and not in the least calculated or sentimental.

About the Dardennes

The Dardennes were born and raised in Seraing (near Liege), the French-speaking region of Belgium, which provides the gritty, postindustrial landscape in their films. Jean-Pierre studied drama while Luc studied philosophy. In 1975 they established Dérives, the production company that produced the roughly sixty documentary films they made before branching into feature films. The tone and subject matter of their docus reflect the same themes of their narrative films: immigration, World War II resistance, labor issues and strikes.   In 1994, they created Les Films du Fleuve, the company that has produced all their features.