LA PROMESSE (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1996)

Written and directed by Belgium’s Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2005) have both won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Prior to that, the brothers won the Cannes directorial prize for The Promise. (In the U.S., it won best film prizes from the National Society of Film Critics, and the Los Angeles and Seattle critics’ groups.) It is about a fifteen-year-old delinquent named Igor who discovers or invents his capacity for honor, depending on one’s view of human nature. Although grim and gritty, it is a genuinely inspiring film.
     The Promise is famous for something else: its lead performance, which launched the international career of Jérémie Rénier. Rénier, who is at once natural and brilliant, is the heart and soul of The Promise. In the dozen years since, prolific Rénier has proven himself an extraordinarily gifted and versatile actor. Imagine if his career possesses the longevity of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s. (Already we have had the treat of seeing Léaud and Rénier beautifully play father and son in Bertrand Bonello’s 2001 The Pornographer.)
     In Liege, Igor has been trained by his single father to be a conscienceless petty thief. Roger, this father, rents apartments to and works illegal immigrants. A scaffolding accident fells Amidou, who is from Burkina Faso. His wife, Assita, and their infant have just moved into Amidou’s tiny apartment. Dying, Amidou gets Igor to promise to take care of his wife and child. The boy delivers, eventually opposing his father at nearly every turn in order to keep his word, thus forging a bond of faith with all those he and his father have exploited for their own gain.
     Fleet, The Promise consists of short, action-packed scenes: suited to Igor’s youth and promise, action as style rather than as genre.

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