A drama about a Belgian teenager forced to choose between misplaced loyalties and his conscience, "La Promesse" is a good, old-fashioned morality play.
The film is a troubling, offbeat and somewhat downbeat drama with no easy answers, with a stark, realistic style and some very good performances, especially from newcomer Jeremie Renier as the film's 15-year-old protagonist, Igor.
It's also a promising debut for U.S. audiences from the writing, producing and directing team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgian brothers whose earlier feature films (1986's "Falsch" and 1991's "Je Pense a Vous") haven't been shown here.
As the film begins, Igor is shown working for his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a corrupt slumlord who exploits illegal immigrants by charging them exorbitant rents and working them on shady construction projects.
The teen starts to have second thoughts about his father when Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), one of the slave-labor workers, is critically injured while fleeing from labor inspectors. Rather than get the dying man medical treatment, which might lead to questions about his operations, Roger lets him die and buries his body in cement.
When Hamidou fails to return, his widow (Assita Ouedraogo) starts asking some serious questions about his disappearance. She turns to Roger for help, but he plots to sell the woman and her baby to a brothel.
That turns out to be the clincher for Igor, who decides to help her escape the country, though he is still concealing the fact that her husband is dead — and that he had a hand in it.
As mentioned, the film is very dark at times, though the Dardennes lighten it with some well-placed humor. And the performances, especially from Renier and Gourmet, are excellent.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is that it muddies the moral waters. Even the central character is not without blame. Igor is almost as responsible as his father for letting Hamidou die without treatment, and his motivations for helping the widow seem unclear at first.
As played by Gourmet, Roger is an amoral creep, but he also obviously loves his son — as demonstrated by a scene in which the two affectionately sing a song onstage together.
"La Promesse" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for violence, profanity and a brief sex scene (which is overheard but not seen).