La Promesse, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is a tough, coming-of-age Belgian film about a fifteen-year-old boy named Igor who is faced with a moral dilemma that will change his life forever.
In the first scene we see Igor (Jérémie Rénier)a scruffy, long blond-haired kid filching pension money from an old woman he is helping. Then a few moments later he leaves early from work to help his father bring in a bunch of illegal immigrants, which his father uses for cheap labor. Clearly Igor is in need of a lesson or two and that is exactly what the film provides.
Igor, though, doesn't look the part of a bad kid instead he is rather amoral – he only knows the life of crime. He also doesn't seem to have an opinion either way about his father's dealings except that it takes away from the time he has to work a regular job and play with his friends.
Igor's father, Roger, (Olivier Gourment), is a vacant-looking overweight lout who obviously has been hardened by all his years. But he loves Igor and has set his sights on saving enough money to one day buy the house that he and his Igor are presently living in. Together they have an good - albeit dysfuntional - bond.
But then an African illegal immigrant from Burkina Faso –working at one of Roger's accident sites – dies in a freak accident and Igor watches as his father literally buries the evidence and lies to the man's wife that her husband must have run away. Igor, naturally, begins to feel guilty about the whole affair and eventually must face the fact that his father is a dishonest man. But the hard part is when Igor must stay true to 'the promise' that he made to the man before he died, which is help his wife.
By helping the woman he must turn away from his father and the only way to do that is to run away from home. He must toil with his conscience, deal with the wrath of his father (not to mention face racial scutiny for helping a black woman) and become a man.
This all seems to be a straight forward plot and maybe it is but what's great about the film is that each of the characters – no matter how bad – are presented as real people with many shades of both good and bad characteristics. And this helps make everything that happens much more real.
The Dardenne brothers use almost all natural light and hand-held shots, which give the film the immediacy and feeling of a documentary. (And in fact they have shot documentaries together for over twenty years). They also stay away from sentimentality or emotional manipulation instead relying on the acting and the natural life-like drama to carry the emotional weight of the film. The film too has no score whatsoever and moves along at a quick pace without focusing for too long on the moral dilemmas Igor and his father are facing. Still, you'd be hard pressed to find a more gut-wrenching scene, towards the end, than when Igor turns his back on his pleading father.
The DVD is presented in the standard European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and looks okay. It seems to have been transferred from a theatrical print because it shows a good number of scratches. The colors are drab and many of the shots have a flat look, which is intentional and fits the material rather well. There is no edge enhancement noticeable and only a little compression artifact.
The audio is presented in Dolby Stereo 2.0 and had an option of French or Italian dubbed language. The sound is okay at best. A lot of the scenes are shot outdoors or on location so the sound isn't always sharp and clear, especially when people talk. There is no soundtrack the only music that is heard comes from radios and such,
The only extras are the European trailer, and filmographies on the two main actors and the directors and a photo gallery with 21 photos (that doesn't show much accept what the directors look like). This is the kind of film that needs either an interview or some kind of write-up on the inside cover. The only clever thing is the main menu itself, which uses a karaoke song that the father and son sing in the movie. There are 16 chapters and the film is 90 minutes long (although the box says 93min).
La Promesse is the kind of foreign film that sneaks in under the radar and only seems to be appreciated by the critics and the few people that see it. It's too bad because it's a great film. Now that it is available on New Yorker DVD there at least is a chance that it can finally reach a bigger audience.