When last I spoke of European filmmakers, I basically accused them of gleefully killing any animal that might be nearby when the cameras were rolling. Please note, however, that at no time did I specifically mention Belgians. This is a relief, because tomorrow Criterion is releasing two films -- La Promesse and Rosetta -- by the Belgian filmmaking team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and I'd hate to start off talking about those films on a sour note. The fact that a rooster is killed in La Promesse should not hinder us because that happens off-screen.
Prior to this weekend, when I watched both films, I'd only seen one Dardennes offering, L'Enfant, which I thought was a terrific and terrifically focused piece of almost neo-realist filmmaking about impoverished, fringe lives and the moral quagmires desperate people can sink themselves into. I say "almost neo-realist" because, while meaning no disrespect whatsoever to that form, classic neo-realism can sometimes, and paradoxically, call attention to its particular brand of "real life." This can be a side effect of using non-professional actors, or simply a natural result of being compared to melodrama or other forms of stylized filmmaking, which neo-realism in its infancy was consciously doing. Possibly because neo-realism eventually joined forces with kitchen sink realism, and soon became just another thing, rather than an explicit reaction to a very different thing, the Dardennes' style is able to at least appear to very smoothly exist within the worlds they create. And while I can't pretend to know the biographies of the actors who have appeared in the three Dardennes films I've seen, I'd be very surprised to learn that many of them are or were non-professionals.
Take Olivier Gourmet, who appears in both La Promesse and Rosetta (and L'Enfant, as well). He's a supporting actor in each, but, in La Promesse in particular, he lives and breathes with seeming effortlessness and specificity, with his thick glasses and jogging suit and perpetually unshaven face, as the monstrous Roger, father of Igor (Jeremie Renier), the 14-year-old protagonist whose moral awakening occurs when he witnesses, and helps, Roger ruthlessly exploit the undocumented workers who filter their way through the tenement house where Roger, basically, stores them. One day, when some investigators are coming by to check the documents of the men Roger employs in his construction business, one of the workers, Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), dies in a fall. Igor's attempts to save the man's life are thrust aside by Roger, who would rather save his own neck by letting the man die out of sight of the inspectors, and disposing of the body later. From there, the film follows Igor's struggle for redemption as he tries to help out Amidou's widow (who does not know she's a widow, believing instead that Amidou is laying low due to gambling debts) played by Assita Ouedraogo. After a certain point, Roger drops out of the film physically for long stretches, though the danger of his presence never does. Olivier Gourmet's performance makes sure of that, and he does this by making Roger a very ordinary kind of shitty person. Roger is not from a movie, somehow.
Usually, though, the sad lives of their child heroes are not so explicitly laid out. Most of the point is gotten across by showing Igor and Rosetta riding home quietly on the bus, doing nothing but looking out the window. Not listening to music, not talking to anyone, not even, it doesn't appear, thinking about much beyond whatever the next chore or errand is. Their days are full, I'll give them that. These bus scenes -- and both films have them, as well as other riffs on the same idea -- are among the Dardennes' most striking. Their films are not about the emptiness of boredom, but the emptiness of one damn thing after another that has to be done, that can't not be done if there are to be too many days more, of anything. These films are about survival, of a very quiet sort.