Friday, July 28, 2006
LA PROMESSE (1996, Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
"How can you be guiltier than anyone in the eyes of all? There are murderers and brigands. What crimes have you committed to blame yourself more than everyone else?"
The Brothers Karamazov
It comes as no surprise to learn that this inquiry into the awakening of a young man's conscience should be inspired by a passage from Dostoevsky. Where the novelist delves deep into the consciousness of his characters, the film-makers restrict themselves to irreducable physical action, but the essential impulse is the same: a commitment to portray the darkness of the human heart and the possibility of its costly redemption in stories whose uncompromising realism is informed by the Christian faith.
Igor is a likeable kid on the verge of adulthood; smart, polite, eager to please. He also steals from customers at the service station where he is apprenticing, and lies about his constant lateness and unpredicable absences. Called away from the shop one too many times, his boss gives an ultimatum, and Igor is essentially offered a choice between two apprenticeships: he can learn the mechanic's trade, or give his full attention to the "family business," trading on the powerlessness of illegal immigrants.
LA PROMESSE is a marvel of balance and ambivalence. While we recoil from the nature and consequences of the work itself – observed in meticulous detail by the film-makers, who as usual are fascinated by the learning of craft, the concrete workings of a specific trade – we are drawn to the love between father and son, and the inherent goodness of family members working together in a common cause, echoes of the Dardenne brothers' own familial bond: "one film-maker, four eyes."
There is something sacred about a father passing things along to his son – profoundly appealing, and profoundly disquieting when the skills he conveys are nothing you'd want his boy to be learning. The young man grows into adulthood, grows up into the image of his father, and while we celebrate the maturing and the connectedness, we recoil from the work itself, and increasingly question whether Igor's father is an adult at all. Roger's love for his son is evident and touching, however wrong-headed, however compromised by a preoccupation with self-interest so profound it moves beyond criminality to verge on evil.
In one extraordinary scene they sing together on a tiny stage in a smoky bar, a sort of blue-collar Belgian karaoke. The performances (here and throughout the film – Olivier Gourmet is a god!) are extraordinary: they love what they're doing, glory in being together. Igor's studied cool doesn't quite conceal the fact he is playing to the audience, possibly playing to a particular someone in the audience: Roger is euphoric, flushed, constantly looking at his boy in the fineness and abandon of this moment. Ivor strives to look like an adult, Roger beams like a kid. The song ends, they leave the stage, and as they settle into a booth with two women we realize the context for their performance without a word of explanation being given: tonight, the boy will become a man, in his father's terms.
The sequence is set up with a scene of tremendous irony and sadness. After the son has proved himself in a particularly compromising task, Roger gives his son a ring "just like mine": the son glows in the warmth of his father's praise, palpably proud of growing into his father's image, receiving his father's blessing, yet the gift is tarnished by the inescapable sense that this is a reward for a bad job well done – perhaps even a seal on his silence about their complicity in evil. When Igor calls his father "Dad," he is corrected: "No, call me Roger." At the same time as there is something undeniably generous in the gesture, offering the son a certain coming-of-age equality with his father, there's something terribly sad about a father wanting to be "just like" his son. And something fateful in the timing of this moment, when a father gives away his right to the title of "Father."
Ultimately Igor is offered another choice, when he is asked to make a promise (to another father) that will require him to become protector to some of the victims of his father's self-interested cruelty, a sort-of-father to a small boy and a quasi-husband to Assita, the child's mother. To Igor, this appealing African woman began as an object of his adolescent sexual desire, as he spied on her squalid apartment as she worked in her slip: now his true manhood is put to the test when he's called on to be her provider, something like her husband - without the sex. To relate with her, rather than to have relations with her.
While Luc Dardenne's Catholic spirituality and engagement with the Bible are apparent throughout his journal (Au dos de nos images, 2005), and the thematic preoccupations of all the brothers' films – guilt and responsibility, vengeance and mercy, parents and children, poverty and justice, truth and lies, agonizing moral choices when sheer survival is threatened – resonate with that Christian faith, it is only in LA PROMESSE (and the much more obscure FALSCH) that explicitly religious elements come into play. In the person of Assita, Igor is confronted for the first time not only with the kind of strength and nobility that come from authentic and uncompromising moral integrity, but also with spiritual mysteries that suggest there are realities beyond the venal, materialistic, opportunistic world his father has introduced him to. When he brings the couple their forged residency permit, Assita and her husband are covering their baby with ointment: "In this new house he must be protected against bad spirits." When Igor grins and informs them that there are no bad spirits here, the woman corrects him: "Yes. We don't see them, but they see us." And we recall, and perhaps Igor recalls, the moment when he peered at her through the secret peep-hole: how can she know the nature of the heart behind this innocent boyish face, as false as the immigration documents he offers?
Later the woman struggles to construct a back-alley sheep pen out of trash and a discarded bed-frame: the animal is not to provide milk for her baby, but "to celebrate the end of Ramadan" – the significance of which is no more explained to the viewer than it is to the utterly secular Igor. By reading the entrails of a chicken who has (unknown to her) walked over her husband's grave, the she knows her husband "is not far away," and when Igor witnesses an African shaman discern truths about the Assita's husband by chanting and gazing at elemental things like water and sand, he is almost physically sick – not so much with the risk that his sins will be revealed as with the fact that he is suddenly face to face with grown-up realities about which he and his "worldly" father are utterly naive.
DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, THE RETURN
Available at Videomatica