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The Promise (1996)
gritty alternative to Hollywood pap
24 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
At the turn of the 20th century, film pioneers in the United States were shooting movies about the fantastic, pushing the envelope of special effects and melodrama, while European film makers were trying to capture the the essence of "real life." It's amazing how little has changed in a hundred years.

"La Promesse," a Belgian film by the Dardenne brothers, offers so little of the American drama-enhancers that at first it seems boringly mundane. But an interesting morality-play soon puts the viewer's mind to work. What is the main character, Igor, a street-wise kid supposed to do when his father, who has taught him every trick in the book, hides the accidental death of an illegal immigrant worker? Igor promises the worker's wife that he will look after her and her baby while her husband has gone "missing" but is unable to tell her the horrible truth.

Igor contemplates what to do, oftentimes while driving around a ghastly post-industrial landscape on his rickety moped. No music, just moped whining. In typical Dardenne style, there is a brief touching and funny scene in all of this misery. Igor is filmed actually having fun with his pals in a pitifully dilapidated, home-made go-cart -like all kids should- rather than contemplating such weighty issues. The effect is unforgettable.

Igor finally decides to make a break with his father and in a common but effective convention -- he uses the survival tactics that his father taught him (such as driving their van) against him, leaving the fat-ish father to go after his kid while squeezing onto his kid's moped. Truly a pathetic sight.

Igor, his hand played with his father, is now forced to confront the issue with the worker's widow and her baby which makes for a powerful conclusion. Sans music, of course.

Without entirely giving up the movie, the title, "La Promesse" actually has two meanings it seems. The first is the promise to the woman and her baby but the directors evidently are also rooting for "the promise" of a younger (post-baby boomer) generation to act altruistically. I'm reminded of the line in a John Cougar Mellencamp (baby-boomer) song, "Check it Out," when he sings wistfully, "Future generations...maybe they'll have a better understanding, Hopefully have a better understanding..."

In a sad coda, I saw "La Promesse" in Washington DC's last independent theater just days before it closed down, thus losing it's battle with the evil theater-chain empires. Movies like "La Promesse" are the kinds of films that allow one to restore the promise that there can still be thoughtful and unforgettable cinema out there in the land of formulaic Hollywood pap. These films need to be made and offered in our theaters and video stores...and taught in our film schools. They do more than entertain. They offer a window on life. If they can't survive in the "movie market," then (oh-no, the s-word) subsidize them and use them as teaching instruments to our students. Maybe future generations will revive the art -- and learn something in the process.
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Lovely lark about Liverpool Loonies
2 January 1999
Atmospheric, un-slick, and utterly unique, Letter to Brezhnev captures a slice of the 1980s which seems all the more extraordinary in 1999. Graced by realistic acting, deft camera work, and a superb soundtrack, one is successfully transformed to a period and a place, in this case wonderfully dreary Liverpool in the early 80s - New Wave music and the Cold War are in full swing. Such a movie is hip today but rarely achieved. The story may seem a little far-fetched - Liverpool girl (Pigg) gets Russian guy (Firth) with a little help from no less than the Soviet Premier - but some of us who grew up in the 80s like to think that it could. The 80s were like that. Now, we just have awful, cynical, formulaic pap - Reality Bites and Boys on the Side...whine, whine, whine. Why can't more movies like Letter to Brezhnev be made?
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