A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, August 4, 2017

La Promesse (Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1996)

Jérémie Renier in La Promesse
Igor: Jérémie Renier
Roger: Olivier Gourmet
Assita: Assita Ouedraogo
Hamidu: Rasmane Ouedraogo
The Garage Boss: Frédéric Bodson

Director: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenplay: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen

La Promesse is one of those films in which you can see from the very beginning that things are not going to turn out well for any of its characters. But what keeps you going is the complete commitment and skill of its performers, especially 15-year-old Jérémie Renier, and the careful articulation of its moral conundrums by the Dardenne brothers. Renier plays Igor, who has left school to work as an apprentice garage mechanic, but is often in conflict with his boss because he keeps getting called away to assist his father, Roger, who is involved in the underground traffic in undocumented immigrants. Roger exploits the immigrants, many of whom come from Eastern Europe or from Africa, seeking work in the industrial towns of Belgium like Seraing, the Dardennes' home town. Roger provides slum housing and forged documents for the immigrants, and employs them illegally as construction workers on a house he's renovating. In addition to charging them exorbitantly for substandard lodging, he sometimes makes a little money by turning them in to corrupt immigration officials out to fill their quota. Igor doesn't have second thoughts about what his father does, and even seems to be something of a chip off the old block: He filches a wallet off the seat of a car he has just serviced and assures its owner that she must have lost it somewhere, then buries it in a vacant lot after cleaning out the cash. But one day he is called away from the garage -- the boss tells him not to come back after so many absences -- because Roger has just been warned that inspectors are coming to his illegal construction site. He speeds there on his motorbike to warn the workers, who include Hamidu, a man from Burkina Faso who has just been joined in Seraing by his wife and infant son. During the attempt to flee the site, Hamidu falls from the scaffold on which he has been working -- we don't see the fall but instead we see Igor discover the unconscious Hamidu lying beneath the scaffolding. When he sees that Hamidu is bleeding from his leg, Igor tries to make a tourniquet from his belt, but Roger arrives on the scene and snatches the belt away: Hamidu is too far gone, and taking him to the hospital would only expose Roger's illegal practices to the authorities. When Roger goes to find a place to hide the dying man, Hamidu wakes long enough to elicit from Igor a promise to look after his wife, Assita, and their child. With Igor's reluctant help, Roger buries Hamidu in cement on the construction site. But the promise he has made awakens Igor's conscience, and the film takes its course from there, as Igor tries to help Assita escape from the situation into which Hamidu's death, and Roger's attempts to cover it up, place her. The Dardennes build real suspense as the story progresses, but there is no deus ex machina to provide an unlikely happy ending. Only a kind of moment of clarity for Igor gives his and Assita's dilemma, with its disturbingly contemporary resonances, a faint glimmer of hope.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

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