Published July 1, 1997
La Promesse by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne stars Jérémie Renier as Igor, a Belgian boy of about 16 working to help his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), who is a shady dealer in the import and export of illegal immigrants in Liège. He also works as an apprentice mechanic at a service station and seems genuinely interested in acquiring this legitimate trade, though he also continues to function (as, it seems, his father has taught him) as a thief and a pickpocket and to dream, like any respectable 16 year old boy, of building and racing a go-cart with his friends.
One day as some of the illegals are working on a construction job, Igor is called on to deliver the warning that some inspectors are on the way and for the illegals to clear out. One of them, a man from Burkina Faso called Amidu (Rasmane Ouedraogo) injures his leg in dismounting from the scaffolding and bleeds to death. Igor tries to save him by putting a tourniquet on his leg and attempting to get him to a hospital, but Roger arrives, silently removes the tourniquet, and lets the man die. Obviously, there would be complications and awkward questions for him to answer if he has to go to the hospital. Roger then makes Igor help him hide the body until they can put it in a concrete form and pour cement over it.
Before he dies, however, Amidu extracts from Igor a promise that he will look after his wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), and child. This obligation, together with Igor’s natural feelings of guilt for the man’s death, set him on a path of conflict with his father which is the main business of the picture. In the end he comes out of it, and out of the world of grasping selfishness and corruption which he has learned to take for granted, with a hard-won humanity. Along the way, we are able to see with his eyes the weakness and cowardice which lie behind his father’s viciousness — the pain of which realization we also share.
The only flaw in the film lies in the fact that it is unclear at the end what results from Igor’s decision to defy his father and turn honest with poor Assita. In effect this means that Igor’s moral awakening is only partial, since he never experiences the consequences of his moral action. These need not be spelled out in detail, but we are left unsure that he even knows how his action is likely to affect his father. Nor should the audience have been spared that difficult knowledge. But, although it ends too soon, it is a film worth seeing.