Promises, Promesses: A great film returns

Here again so soon?  I know, and it may never happen again, but just as I was posting Wednesday’s  CQF, this urgent piece, The Legitimate Children of Rape, turned up on the New Yorker’s website. It’s a devastating, factual corollary to the conjecture and imaginings of that last CQF post, and as such it’s real required reading.

The writer, Andrew Solomon, whose multi-faceted credits are a digression all their own, has been researching a book, “Far from the Tree” which deals in part with women – worldwide — raising children conceived in rape.

He opens this article with the figure from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that in America we have an estimated twenty-five thousand rape-related pregnancies each year.  Not all of them will result in live births, but any percentage of that figure that represents women raising children conceived in rape suggests the enormity of the situation.

Solomon writes, “One of the few groups founded to address this population, Stigma Inc., took as its motto, ‘Rape survivors are the victims. . .their children are the forgotten victims.’”

You may want to erase details that Solomon records from your memory; dis-remember the actions and the daily emotional turmoil of these unwilling mothers whose lives are  “the living reproof to Akin’s remark.”  I did, but I can’t. In the face of the extremism of Akin, the newly anointed Paul Ryan and their comrades in office, they are stories we may need to remember.

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The mail today wasn’t all bleak.  Criterion’s August releases are a lovely mixed bag, which includes, to my great joy,  La Promesse, the first film by Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

It not only marked them as artists to be watched, but stamped the beginning of their remarkable working relationship with actor Jérémie Renier, which has continued and deepened through 14 years, 4 films and international honors. Among those are the wrenching L’Enfant and the 2011 prize winner The Kid with a Bike.

Here’s the way La Promesse looked to me at the time. (Pace Cinemania)

La Promesse, a merciless, modestly made and utterly unforgettable film by the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne has finally made it out of the film festival circuit and into theatres, thanks to Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films.

Optimistic in the face of corruption, tender despite its grimy setting, La Promesse, watches the birth of a moral center in a 15-year old boy, fight it though he might. Igor (Jérémie Renier), blond, likeable, still a virgin, is accomplished in the layers of lies it takes to smuggle illegal immigrants into present-day Belgium, and get away with it.

He’s learned the tricks from his dumpy, chiseling father Roger (Olivier Gourmet), to whom lying comes automatically. (Rather than wait in a line, Roger bullies his way to the counter with a story that his son has been hurt in an accident.)  An unemployed factory worker, like nearly all the men in this Liège suburb, Roger now smuggles in men from Africa, Turkey, Romania, wherever, puts them up in cold and literally stinking flats, uses them as cheap labor and charges them for every necessity.

Lonely himself, Roger’s relationship with his son is creepy and explosive. He calls Igor “his best friend,” gives him an expensive present, then whacks him around.  He’s already taken the boy out of school, the better to follow the family business, but because of Belgium’s strict schooling laws, Igor is in the apprentice program of a garage. He might even be picking up a trade, but when his father whistles, Igor runs.

The current crop of workers includes the African-born Hamidou  (Rasmané Ouedraogo), a lean, middle-aged man with great presence, and his newly arrived young wife Assita (Assita Oedraogo, no relation.)  Tall and striking, Assita carries with her their infant son, whom Hamidou has barely seen since he came to Belgium to work.

Igor gives that promise to Hamidou after the frail laborer has fallen from a scaffold in the wake of a labor department raid.  Horrified, cradling the mortally injured man, Igor swears to the desperate African that he will look after Assita and her baby.

Roger gives one stony glance at Hamidou and refuses to take him to a hospital – too many questions. At his father’s orders, the stunned Igor helps him “bury” (that is, cement-over) Hamidou’s still warm body. Then the two begin a chain of lies to Assita, suggesting that her husband may have run off because of gambling debts.

Igor tells no one about his vow, not even his father whom he loves and fears equally, but the enormity of what they have done weighs on him more each day. It’s made heavier as he begins to see Assita, now frantic and despairing, as something more than a faceless, expendable immigrant.  Before our eyes, we see this boy, on the knife edge between cynicism and grace, turn toward the light.

It’s this astonishing moment of hope, growing like a flower up through cement, that makes La Promesseso heartening – and so rare.  At first, with its hand-held immediacy and the realism of its streets and claustrophobic flats, it seems utterly naturalistic. It’s not, although Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who write and direct jointly, come to features after years as documentary filmmakers.

La Promesse has a furious vitality; the camera – and the editing – drives forward, darting, ranging, and propelling us into the action. It also contains one blood curdling moment that is the purest Greek tragedy: Assita, pursuing a chicken to slaughter it for a truth-telling ritual, grabs it – as it runs onto the very boards which cover her husband’s body.

The cast mixes non-actors with theatre professionals: Olivier Gourmet, the father (a memorable blend of fear and corruption), is from regional theatre; the extraordinary Renier as Igor, is virtually a beginner, Assita Ouedraogo is a schoolteacher from Burkina Faso.  Clearly, the Dardennes are masters at achieving honesty, not “performances.”

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Check Criterion’s snippet from their long interview with father and son, Gourmet and Renier, and a tantalizing piece on Acting for the Dardennes here.  I cannot wait to see the DVD.

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