It took three features for the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne to break out into international acclaim with La Promesse (The Promise), a film that distinctly bears the hallmarks, virtues and verité style that soon embody their future works, transforming the heretofore unknown documentarians into the arthouse filmmaking force they are known today. Here, it’s as if the brothers have restarted and notionally contemplated the brand of cinema they would forge throughout their stellar career thus far – and La Promesse manifests the realism and socio-economic concerns that substantiate what cinephiles now call ‘Dardennian’ whenever a new film pops up and looks either seemingly inspired by or simply aping the Dardenne’s cinematic aesthetic. Sure, their craft is not entirely new. Their method can be traced all the way back to the Italian neorealist tradition and even the French New Wave, but they have somehow fashioned a unique voice instantly distinguishable in world cinema, poring over the same thematic preoccupations – the working-class milieu of East Belgium peopled with desperate, hardscrabble, morally-challenged everyday folks, who undergo various odysseys through crime, tribulation and personal awakenings.
La Promesse sees the birth of this ever-recurring theme, where the central protagonist morph from being a subservient apprentice into a socially aware individual capable of empathy, compassion and moral responsibility. Fourteen-year old Jérémie Renier, all blonde locks, youthful swagger and naïve dedication to a corrupt patriarchy, serves as an accessory to his father’s dodgy line of business, which involves scamming West African immigrants and running a makeshift accommodation lettings in an urban hole. The son Igor is nothing more than a puppet to father Roger (a convincingly slimy Olivier Gourmet), whose exploitation reaches far beyond his cavalcade of swiftly dispensable clients, manipulating them both financially and psychologically, enforcing domination and control of Igor’s perspective and suppressing the boy’s growth as a human being in the process.
But in the Dardenne universe of all-pervading humanism, the sense of empathy always blossoms even from the bleakest of places. After witnessing the death of a helpless Ghanian worker, whose dying wish compels Igor to protect the man’s wife and child, the boy’s moral dilemma is soon set in motion. This film is ultimately about a son whose growing conscience makes him abandon his own brood and help the victims of a corrupt system perpetuated by the sins of his own father. It’s a devastating yet remarkable character arc rare in coming-of-age movies. The boy learns about selflessness not through immediate epiphany but through gradual steps shot through the Dardenne’s unsentimental, unaffected camerawork. Where many films of melodramatic capacity would resort to overstatements and grand orchestral accompanying score, the Dardenne’s keep it hushed throughout, rigorously narrowing their camera to Igor’s worldview, free of kitsch, manipulation and moralising. The Dardennes make moral films, but they’re never presumptuous to tell us what’s right or wrong. Instead, they show us in heartbreaking detail what human beings are capable of, both good and bad. And that it’s all a matter of choice.