LA PROMESSE (THE PROMISE) (Belgium, France, Luxembourg) (1996) ***
The movie, premiered in a parallel section of the 1996 Cannes Festival, has been highly praised by American reviewers. It is mostly set in or near the city of Liege (Belgium). It is essentially a two plus two character drama. The first duo consists of young Igor and his father Roger. Igor is 15 -- as per information I gleaned in various documents. (The film proper is rather frustratingly vague about times, places and other factual information). The boy, already a heavy smoker and beer guzzler, but still a virgin, is something of a Peeping Tom, works in a gas station as an apprentice mechanic. He swipes the customers' wallets and shows up at the station fitfully --which results in his dismissal.
Igor is his father's main helper in an illegal operation of illegal immigrant workers, African, Eastern European, Korean, etc., whom the ring, for a high price, spirits into Belgium hidden inside automobiles carries on car-transport vehicles. Then Roger, charging outrageously again, gets the immigrants fake papers and houses them in stinking, disgusting hovels within decrepit buildings.
The traffickers know no decency. When, for example, there is political pressure on the gang, the operators sacrifice some of the aliens by pretending they'll be sent to America (after due payment), but betray them to the authorities.
The story then focuses on an African couple (Amidou and Assita) and their baby. Amidou, working for Roger, falls off a scaffolding and dies, but not before exacting from Igor the promise that he will watch over Assita and her child. Since the body would cause an investigation, father and son dispose of it by burial in concrete.
(It was unclear to me whether or not Amidou might have survived if taken to a hospital -- which Roger refused to do as unsafe for his business. So Amidou's death, may have to a killing by omission).
The man's death is not revealed to his wife. She is told instead that Amidou had disappeared, run off perhaps to avoid paying debts. Roger now tries to get rid of Assita by sending her to nearby Cologne (Germany) where he would arrange for the woman to work as a prostitute.
About 40 minutes into the movie, Igor begins to feel pangs of guilt that keep increasing. He defies his father and attempts to come to the woman's help. The process of a rising conscience and consciousness takes up the rest of the film. It is intermingled with some local touches of racism and xenophobia.
The entire process is filmed like a documentary, with a constantly mobile, moving and often handheld camera. There is obviously a desire by the filmmakers to keep a realistic look and tone, which is understandable and adds power to the movie. This technique is valid in principle. It distances the work from the smooth and slick Hollywood-type films. But it often goes overboard and could induce fatigue in the viewers. A modicum of using the Steadycam system might have helped. ( This gyroscope-like method, introduced in the mid-70s, puts a special harness on the operator and allows moving the machine without jiggling).
The episodes are done with naturalness, economical dialogue and no traditional verbal elaboration. The burden is on telling details, on implications and on the facial expressions of the performers. Roger, and above all Igor, acquit themselves nicely, with the latter's gradual transformation following a credible development.
"La Promesse" is as far as one can go from commercial movies. It is well-meaning but also well-handled, never showing any traces of glop, sentimentalizing or romanticizing. Among its virtues is that if you imagine that this subject had been filmed in routine ways, it might have made of Assita a colorful --perhaps even wise -- character. Here, she is rather attractive but, like her drab surroundings, a sad figure. In a good touch, to find out if her husband is alive or dead, she consults the entrails of a chicken and later is taken by an older African lady to a witch doctor.
Both Assita and Amidou come from Burkina Faso (the former Upper Volta), a small, poor country where, surprisingly, there is Africa's greatest ferment of movie-making, partly encouraged by the regular Pan African festivals in Ouagadougou, the capital. Director Idrissa Ouedraogo, a winner of major awards (e.g. at Cannes) is widely known internationally.
Their real family names of Assita and Amidou are also Ouedraogo. It must be Burkina Faso's equivalent of Smith or Jones or else Idrissa's dozens of relatives have made it in cinema. A year or two ago, when Idrissa's latest film was shown at the Cannes Festival, the credits had such an unending list of Ouedraogos that at the press screening the critics kept bursting into laughter exponentially.