Once again, Criterion is introducing me to classic filmmakers whose names I recognize, but films I have not seen - this time it's the Belgian brotherly duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
While 'La Promesse' was filmed in the mid-90s, it carries the look and aesthetic of something shot in the '60s. The way it begins, I was under the impression that I was about to see a French social commentary film. The opening scene features our central character Igor, a teenage boy working as an automobile mechanic apprentice. When an elderly lady pulls up to the shop with a steaming engine, Igor pops the hood, quickly fixes the problems and hops in the driver's seat to turn the engine over again. With his boss inside the garage and the elderly woman out of sight, Igor reaches into the purse that's sitting on the passenger seat and steals her wallet. From Igor's introduction, I assumed that 'La Promesse' was solely going to paint a picture of Belgium's impoverished lower class. While that is an aspect of the film, it's extremely small compared to the narrative that follows.
Igor's apprenticeship is his attempt at living a normal life, but it's far from the dirty and criminal reality that he was been born into. Igor's dad, Roger, is loved, but he has many flaws. The example he sets for his son is ridiculous – hence the petty theft in the opening scene. Roger has made a business out of smuggling immigrants into the country, hiring them to do the dirty work for his renovation company and renting them the shoddy apartments in his run-down, dingy building. Igor has grown up around this criminal activity his whole life, actively helping Roger make it a success. Nearly every time that Igor finds a minute to play with his friends, he's forced to do some tasks related to the family business.
The way that we, the audience, are taught about Roger's business is pretty brilliant. Roger picks Igor up from the auto shop shortly after the opening sequence. We see them driving down a Belgian highway in front of a semi truck carrying a double-decker load of cars. The next shot shows Roger and Igor standing outside the rig. Both vehicles have pulled off to a secluded area out of public sight. It's there that we learn about the illegal immigrants as we see them climbing out of the vehicles on the rig. We are shown exactly how Roger runs his business by following this set of immigrants. They hop into Roger's van, where Igor begins collecting their smuggling fees. When they arrive at Roger's make-shift apartment building, each immigrant is assigned to a room and given a residential document. Since Igor and Roger are at the apartments, they go around and collect rent from the other long-time residents. At this point, we are introduced to the catalyst side characters that create the main story – Hamidou, a kind Ugandan immigrant who has been living there for a few months, and Assita, Hamidou's wife who just barely arrived with the new shipment of immigrants. Their reunion is made especially sweet because Assita has brought their infant child with her.
Initially, Hamidou and Assita don't seem like important characters, but that quickly changes. Igor goes out of his way for Hamidou and is curious about Assita, spying on her when she's not looking. After watching Igor collect rent from the other immigrants, we see the slight special treatment that the Ugandan couple receives from him.
A few days later, while the men work at the renovation site, Roger calls Igor to warn him that the labor inspectors are on their way to check for citizenship and work papers from the employees. Igor runs through the building, shouting that they must evacuate quickly. When the building is empty, Igor realizes that he didn't see Hamidou get out, so he races to the upstairs outdoor scaffolding to personally tell him. Trying to escape in a hurry, Hamidou falls from the scaffolding and is badly wounded. With a concussion, and bleeding from his thigh profusely, Hamidou knows he's done for. This can go one of two ways: he can race to the hospital and ultimately get deported, or he can die and keep his wife and child in Belgium. As he bleeds out, Hamidou pulls Igor close and makes him promise to take care of Assita and their child – hence the English translation of the film's title, "The Promise."
What the entire film boils down to is, can Igor follow through with his promise, and how far is he willing to go to keep it? This isn't the brightest subject matter, so it's not exactly the most uplifting film. You have to savor the beautiful moments when Igor goes out of his way for Assita, otherwise you will get consumed in the depressing bleakness of her situation. The film wouldn't be so heavy if it wasn't so well made. There's almost no music throughout the film, which makes you focus heavily on the content. I found myself wishing that there would be some sort of underlying score just to cut the tension of silence. (The brilliant filmmaking style is completely explained in the special features, but I'll refrain from spoiling what else makes their movies work so well. The interview is a special feature that you'll want unspoiled.)
If you are not familiar with 'La Promesse,' then be sure to check it out now that it's on Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed 'La Promesse' on a Region A BD-50 in a standard-to-the-collection clear keepcase. A 14-page booklet is included containing production credits and stills, an essay about the Dardenne brothers by Kent Jones and notes about the Criterion transfer. As per usual with Criterion Blu-rays, there is not any pre-menu content.
Being shot on 16mm film stock, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of isn't as fantastic as you'd expect from a 35mm Criterion transfer. This transfer was pulled from 35mm blown-up reels. 'La Promesse' is shown in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, meaning there are slivers of black bars to the left and the right of the image.
Because of the smaller film stock, high details just aren't as prevalent when blown up this big. Despite the application of DNR, accompanying the thick film grain is a good dose of digital noise. There also appear to be lingering white specks that resemble dead pixels. As shots change, so does their locations on the screen.
The one thing that his transfer doesn't lack is vibrancy is color. The small Belgian city where 'La Promesse' takes places is mostly gloomy and gray, which cause the loud colors to appear even bigger in contrast. The reds and yellows of Assita's traditional African dresses truly pop on screen.
Artifacts, aliasing and banding don't arise. Surprisingly, the unnatural look of edge enhancement also isn't a problem.
'La Promesse' originally featured a French 2.0 surround soundtrack. Criterion has beefed it up to 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, but it still sounds like nothing more than a 2.0 track.
The best thing about the audio of 'La Promesse' is the clarity. The mix is completely void of clicks and hissing. But the bad thing is that it never makes use of its 5.1 upgrade. There literally wasn't a single instance where I noticed sound coming out of the surround and/or rear speakers. I even climbed over to one and stuck my head right next to it just to make sure that I didn't miss it. I became worried that my system was messed up, so I ejected the disc and tried another Blu-ray, but quickly learned that this issue was mix-related, not a system error. The 5.1 conversion is utterly wasted. It's false advertising. 'La Promesse' really just utilizes the front channels and should be deemed a 3.0 mix - two front speakers and a center. No subwoofer. No surround.
'La Promesse' was the Dardenne brothers' last shot at filmmaking. If it wasn't a success, they were going to walk away from filmmaking. Prior to it, they had tried making films with the style that they were "supposed to" employ. They played it safe. But with 'La Promesse,' they went all out, going against the grain entirely, and ended up making a fantastic film. While it starts off as a social commentary film, it quickly becomes so much more than that. A great sense of the social reality is conveyed, but not without creating a completely engaging storyline. If you saw the 2012 Oscar winner for best foreign film, 'A Separation,' then you're familiar with the blend that I'm referring to. 'La Promesse' reels you in, tells a great story and even teaches you a little something. The video quality isn't up to par with most Criterion releases, but that's due almost entirely to the transfer coming from a 35mm blown-up print of an original 16mm reel. The original 2.0 audio has been upgraded to a 5.1 lossless mix, but never utilizes the surround or rear channels. There aren't as many special features as there are with most Criterion releases, but that doesn't mean that the 80 minutes worth that are included aren't completely satisfying. All around, 'La Promesse' is a fantastic release that's definitely worth owning if you're a collector of fine films.