Festward Ho!

Blond, boyishly handsome Igor (Jeremie Renier) works as an assistant auto mechanic in an unnamed Belgian city -- that is, when his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) doesn't spirit him away to help run a lucrative business trafficking in illegal aliens. A lumpen hustler, Roger extracts money for a variety of services rendered from a Benetton-like smorgasbord of illegals: Yugoslavs, Romanians, Koreans, Kurds. Money for residence papers, money for rent to live in his ramshackle building, money for this, money for that. In return he pays them to work on the building they all live in, Roger and Igor included. Igor collects cash from the immigrants, doles out forged papers, and, in general, blithely carries out his dad's orders. Roger's operation has already catapulted the kid more than halfway out of adolescence, although he still loves to whiz around the neighborhood on a nifty go-cart he built with two chums.

The latest batch of illegals to arrive includes Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), the wife of Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), who immigrated to Belgium from Burkina Faso in West Africa not long before she did; she has brought along their infant son, and the trio settles in together. Soon thereafter labor inspectors show up at the building's work site, and Igor and Roger hurriedly shoo away their multi-culti crew. In the midst of the mayhem, Hamidou accidentally tumbles from some scaffolding. Igor rushes to his aid. Barely able to speak, Hamidou makes Igor promise that, should he not pull through, Igor will look after his wife and child. The boy numbly agrees, then beseeches his father to get Hamidou to a hospital. But with the inspectors headed their way and discovery of his setup imminent, Roger quickly covers Hamidou with a tarp and an unattached door, guaranteeing the man's death. When the inspectors leave, Roger and a reluctant Igor bury Hamidou behind the building. Later that night Igor washes away some of Hamidou's blood from his ankle, but it soon becomes obvious that he can't rinse away the incident -- or his promise -- quite so easily.

Thus begins the slow process by which Igor pulls away from his father (who insists the boy call him Roger, not Dad -- the filmmakers make no mention of Igor's mother), whom he loves and admires, sentiments firmly established in a winsome scene in which the pair sings together on-stage at a bar's open-mike night. As Roger works hard to deceive Assita about Hamidou's whereabouts -- telling her he has fled in order to escape two menacing brothers who are trying to collect on a hefty gambling debt -- Igor helps her in ways both little (fixing her room's heater) and big (giving her money), attempting to live up to his pledge while simultaneously helping Roger maintain his fiction. That conflict percolates and percolates, culminating in a dramatic familial rupture when Roger convinces Assita that Hamidou is waiting for her in nearby Cologne, when in truth he wants to sell her off as a whore. Igor steps in, commandeers Roger's van, and whisks Assita and the baby away to hide out in his boss's vacant-for-the-weekend apartment.

Much subtle agonizing ensues: Should Igor completely break with Roger and tell Assita the truth about Hamidou, or should he merely help her escape his father's clutches while keeping mum about the death? Renier effectively registers Igor's moral dilemmas while scarcely moving a facial muscle; for that matter, the whole cast (made up, in the neorealist tradition, exclusively of unknowns and nonprofessionals) performs admirably.

The Dardenne brothers have shot their tightly observed meditation on the nature of loyalty and betrayal in a flat, unpretentious fashion: the footage almost grainy, the soundtrack completely ambient, the urbanscape gray and utilitarian. Little color or kindness exists in this mercenary world, with Roger's falling-apart building and the rootlessness/ hopelessness of the exploited illegals serving as telling metaphors for the crushing brutality of this modern world. Troubling, realistic, and unsentimental, La Promesse hums with a quiet human intensity while deftly reanimating a timeless theme.

All screenings take place at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts (174 E Flagler St). Admission is $7 ($25 on opening night). For a complete schedule of films and seminars, see "Calendar" or call 377-

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