When we first meet Igor (Jeremie Renier), a teen-aged garage
mechanic, he is stealing the wallet of an elderly woman whose car he is servicing. That
act would seem to define the essential immorality of "La Promesse's" central
Next we see him join his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) in a van filled with undocumented workers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Africa, who have come to Belgium to escape economic oppression. What awaits them at Roger's warren of ramshackle buildings is only a tiny step upward. As they stand forlornly outside the buildings--their new homes--they complain about the smell of shit. They will rent dismal rooms there and work for a pittance repairing the buildings. To make sure that they will bend to his will, Roger orders Igor to collect their passports.
The relationship between father and son is like the kind Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist. Roger, a Fagin like character, is both bullying and affectionate to his son. He bonds with him by tattooing his arm, using the crude sort of needle-pen and ink that you find in prisons. Although there is no explicit mention of Roger having a criminal past, he strikes you as a criminal type. He is constantly ripping off his workers and tenants and seems ready to use violence to achieve his aims at the drop of a hat. By all appearances, Igor is destined to turn out like his father.
One day the immigration police make a surprise raid and the workmen flee in all directions. In the ensuing panic, Hamidu (Rasmane Ouedraogo), who is from Burkina Faso, falls from a third floor scaffold. As he lies on the ground severely injured, he whispers to Igor that he must watch over his wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and their baby, who have just arrived with the latest batch of "illegals." "Promise me," he says. Before Igor has a chance to answer him, his father arrives and makes a decision that will divide him psychologically and morally from his son. If they bring Hamidu to the hospital, they will invite an investigation by the cops. So they put some planks over the injured man to keep him from view and allow him to die. After he dies, they drag him into a shed and pour concrete over his body.
Igor is assigned the task to lie to the dead man's wife that he has fled town because of gambling debts. She answers emphatically that he will return, because he is her husband. In the course of their conversation, the youth takes note of the coldness of the room and tells her that he will bring a gas heater. For some reason, he views the African woman and her infant as fellow human beings. Whether it is because of the "promesse" her dead husband demanded from him, or some shred of humanity that his father has not managed to rip out, he begins to bond with her. For the remainder of the film, he does everything he can to protect the woman and her baby, even when she rejects his protection. She finds it difficult to distinguish the boy from his heartless father.
One can understand her wariness of whites. In one scene, she waits under a bridge for Igor, with her baby in her arms. Suddenly she feels a stream of liquid on her head. Two motorcyclists have begun pissing on her. After she screams at them, they get on their bikes and ride over her bags. A carving of a deity is destroyed in the process. Igor takes her and the child to the garage where he begins repairing it, only to be confronted by his father who demands that he turn the woman over to him. He has made plans to sell her into prostitution.
Although Belgium does not evoke images of racism, economic tensions are turning it into a simmering cauldron of hatred according to a March 5, 1998 USA Today article filed by Marco R. della Cava from Antwerp, Belgium:
"Living in fear because of one's skin color would appear to be the dirty little secret of a quiet country best known for chocolates, diamonds and the EU's headquarters. Except this is no secret.
"Belgium is home to the most racist people in Europe, tops among a 15-nation populace of 370 million who are increasingly tense over joblessness and immigration, according to the EU poll released in 1997.
"In the poll, European citizens were posed the following question: 'Some people feel they are not at all racist. Others feel they are very racist. Would you look at this card and give me the number that shows your own feelings about this?'
"Belgians were the most open about their racist feelings, with 22% saying they considered themselves 'very racist.' They were followed by the French (16%) and Austrians (14%). Least racist were the Swedes (2%). Among all Europeans, just 9% rated themselves as 'very racist' and another 24% said they were 'quite racist.'
"The poll's companion analysis indicates that those polled explained their racist tendencies by linking top concerns -- unemployment, crime and drug abuse -- to the growing legions of economic and political refugees banging on Europe's door.
"Whatever the reasons, Europe is being prodded to quickly address its increasing ethnic dilution. Liberal voices urge education and employment, while far-right groups echo the slogan of Antwerp's popular political party Vlaams Blok: 'Eigen volk eerst,' 'Our People First.'"
I strongly recommend "La Promesse" as a powerful human story that dramatizes one of Europe's most urgent social problems. It is written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It was released in American theaters in 1996 and is now available in video.