The Promise

La Promesse

Year: 1994
Country: Belgium, Germany
Running time: 93 mins

Production co: Les Films du Fleuve/RTBF/Touza Productions/Samsa Films
Producers: Hassen Daldoul, Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Photography: Alain Marcoen
Editor: Marie-Hélène Dozo
Music: Jean-Marie Billy, Denis M’Punga
In French with English subtitles

Roger: Olivier Gourmet
Assita: Assita Ouedraogo
Amidou: Rasmané Ouedraogo
Igor: Jérémie Renier

Festivals: Cannes, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, London 1996; Rotterdam, San Francisco 1997
The Promise is a potent, tense and distinctively contemporary European crime movie. The crime in question – the smuggling of illegal immigrants from Africa and east Europe into western Europe – bears an appalling resemblance to the slave trade. Once the workers and their families are transported onto a building site, they discover that their rent and food and heating costs are all deducted from their so-called wages. Without money or papers they are virtual hostages to their exploiters.

Up to their necks in this business are the bluff, brutal Roger and his fifteen-year-old son and apprentice, Igor. A disastrous accident and coverup oblige Igor to acknowledge a profound uneasiness about the work that bonds him to his father. His father’s fierce love is a formidable and sustaining force from which he struggles to extricate himself. Igor’s dread of the unpredictable consequences of defiance is the tension which galvanises this superb film. — Bill Gosden

The Promise, the first fiction film from the documentary team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is one of the great films of the 1990s. Reminiscent of the fine American film Fresh in its evocation of a teenage boy negotiating his way through the mean streets of an amoral, criminal milieu, The Promise ends up evoking the cinema’s most telling, compassionate and morally complex portraits of childhood and adolescence, specifically Rossellini’s war-time classics.

Caught between two promises – the promise to a dying African immigrant to look after his wife and child, and his promise to his father to keep this man’s death a secret – the boy’s painful journey to the toughest of resolutions is a remarkable parable of human “bondedness”, responsibility and community in our multi-racial, multi-cultural time. — Adrian Martin, Cinema Papers, 5/97

Two young filmmakers, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, take on the hot-button issue of exploited immigrant workers and, in doing so, manage a small miracle, namely to produce a tight, simple, moving piece of realistic filmmaking that manages to steer clear of the didactic sociological platitudes such a topic generally suggests to filmmakers

Igor, a Belgian teenager, zips around the drab industrial landscape on his moped, a busy errand boy for his father, whose stock in trade is the sheltering and exploitation of illegal immigrants. Igor is, at the start of the film, a busybody with an amoral streak, into fast money and utterly fascinated by his father, who is grooming him for the trade. All this changes, however, when an African worker takes a deadly spill from scaffolding.

Exactingly precise in its description of the rituals of exploitation of illegal immigrants, La Promesse is essentially an affecting coming-of-age story. It has energy and heart to spare, and certainly enough of it to let the viewer flow with its rough-hewn brand of filmmaking. — Jean-Pierre Gorin, San Francisco Film Festival 1997