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Torn by Duty

La Promesse
Bike to Work: Igor, a petty thief in the making, motors on his rounds through dreary Liege in the Belgian drama 'La Promesse.'

A troubled teenager must steer between loyalty and morality in 'La Promesse'

By Richard von Busack

BELGIUM IS the Ohio of Europe. The French-speaking city of Liege has neighborhoods that look exactly like the dumpy parts of Akron and Toledo. In one of these neighborhoods, Igor (Jérémie Renier), about 16 but still a boy, is being groomed for the criminal life by Roger (Olivier Gourmet), the man he calls father, although their real relationship is not certain. Roger's scam is smuggling illegal workers from Turkey and Ghana into Belgium to work on construction jobs. At night, the illegal workers sleep in a nest of thin-walled, evil-smelling apartments that Roger rents them. One of the workers from Ghana has just been joined by his wife and baby, but tragedy strikes quickly when he takes a bad fall from a ladder. Igor finds the injured man, who makes him promise to take care of his wife and child. When Roger arrives, he forces Igor to help him hide the dying man's body to avoid trouble with the police. The worker's stubborn widow (Assita Ouedraogo), however, refuses to keep quiet. Igor is torn between his fear of the older man's rage and his duty to his fellow human beings.

The never-less-than authentic drama speeds along, thanks to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's hand-held view of Igor and his city. The directors size Igor up as a dispassionate but impulsive thief. The child in him keeps Igor from hardening completely, but he's also a half-feral punk. Roger is doing everything he can to bring up the boy in his image, even giving him matching rings and tattoos as symbols of his love. But worse than any marking is the criminal habit of mind Igor is developing; he's learning to lie so well that he believes the lies himself.

Gourmet is memorable as Roger: weak-eyed, weak-chinned, weak-minded. Only rarely on screen do you see how very hard some criminals have to work. Roger's terrible temper is a result not only of his own flaws but also of stress. Being straw boss for these illegals means taking care of one damn thing after another--they're not exactly a flock of swans. Although you sympathize with their exploitation and come to hate the man who exploits them, you also see them as Roger does--as a pain in the ass, always complaining, doing drugs and asking for better lodgings.

The two directors have wrestled honorably with the standard problem of crime stories--how to make the ending sufficiently grim but not too despairing--but the introduction of some animist religion seems like a magical-realist turn that is too fruity for the text. The pace slows just as Igor's dilemma all but immobilizes him. Still, the open ending is as integral to the film as the rest of the story. The directors undercut the sentiment and horror all the way through. Sometimes movies in which not a single shot is fired are the most hard-boiled.

La Promesse (Unrated; 93 min.), directed and written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, photographed by Alain Marcoen and starring Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier.

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From the July 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro.

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