"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?" "My dear mother, my deepest love, know that everyone is guilty in everyone's eyes. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel that is so, and it torments me."
Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne cite the above exchange from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as the genesis of their first narrative feature film, La Promesse. Marcel's guilt and torment is played out onscreen in the person of Igor (Jérémie Rénier), the fifteen-year-old son of a slumlord who traffics in illegal immigrants.
When one of their tenants dies in an accident, Igor is forced to confront the consequences of his and his father's disgraceful actions while fulfilling "the promise" he makes to the dying man: protecting the man's wife and infant son becomes for Igor both a burden and a vehicle for possible redemption.
La Promesse is a remarkable film whose beauty is born from the Dardennes' precise suffusion of no-pulled-punches honesty and moral complexity into standard narrative conventions. The film follows a basic two-act structure (before and after the promise) and is a classic coming-of-age tale, but the Dardennes' style breathes new life into the form.
Like Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose Decalogue and Three Colors Trilogy also appear in the Top 100 (#2 and #15, respectively), the Dardennes began their careers as documentary filmmakers, and their cinematic language likewise eschews the conventions of classic continuity editing. For example, there are no shot/reverse-shots, the method typically used to cut between two characters who are having a conversation. Instead, the Dardennes' handheld, documentary-like camera lingers at a distance, occasionally peering over shoulders and only rarely moving in for a close-up (and even then only on Igor and Assita, the widow who becomes Igor's maternal surrogate).
The performances are likewise completely natural—so much so, in fact, that the lead actors (Renier and Olivier Gourmet, who plays Roger, his father) might easily be mistaken for non-professional, "real" people by viewers who have not seen them in other roles.
One particularly impressive scene takes place in a bar, where after singing together, Igor and Roger sit down for drinks with two women. We have learned in an earlier scene that Igor is a virgin, but Rénier's uncomfortable and self-conscious performance here makes such exposition unnecessary. Later, the inevitable confrontation between father and son plays out in real time in a scene that, even after multiple viewings, is excruciatingly tense and tragic. It's scenes like these that have made the Dardennes such a favorite of the Arts and Faith community. All four films they've made since La Promesse are also included in the Top 100.
La Promesse ends with a stunning moment of ambiguity, confusion, and, quite possibly, grace. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of it: "I find it impossible to imagine what transpires between Assita and Igor after the final shot." Both characters have been transformed by their experience, but the Dardennes rightly deny that strong narrative drive in all of us—the desire for closure, for a neat and happy ending. A moment of redemption is enough. It's plenty.