La promesse, the austere, urgent, uncompromising 1996 feature from brothers and filmmaking partners Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, was not their first feature, but it might have well have been. It introduced the Dardennes — and their immediate, engaged approach to telling stories about people on margins — to the world and it announced the arrival of a vital new filmmaking talent. It was their third narrative feature and it followed a career honing their skills and concerns in years of documentary filmmaking.
La promesse opens on young, blond, very boyish Jérémie Renier as Igor, a teenage kid ostensibly apprenticing as a mechanic in a gas station / garage. The apprenticeship excuses him from school but he’s clearly more interested in scamming the customers (his initial act of benevolence turns out to be merely a distraction for a little purse snatching) and more committed to helping his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), when he calls. Roger’s business is smuggling illegal aliens into Belgium, or rather taking care of the final leg of the business. He rents them rooms, sells them papers, and finds them jobs, taking his cut on every transaction. Igor is his collector, bookkeeper, and secretary, so to speak, and he’s thoroughly at ease with their captive clients without ever getting personally attached.
That all changes when the young wife of Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), a middle-aged African from Burkino Faso paying off his debt by working (off the books) on Roger’s home, arrives. Igor is fascinated and more than a little interested in the exotic, superstitious, thoroughly practical Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), a young mother with an infant who immediately goes about turning their hovel into a home. When Amidou suffers a fatal accident, Igor makes a promise to take care of his family, unaware of just how it will force him to defy everything his father stands for. It’s not just attraction but it’s also much more complicated than simple guilt over his participation in covering up the death (no need to draw attention to themselves by letting anyone find the corpse of an illegal alien). Forced to confront the inevitable morality of their business, he doesn’t like what he sees once his eyes are opened to his complicity.