“Your place is in the home, and even then you can’t cope.”
In the Spanish gothic thriller, The Promise (AKA La Promesa) Gregoria (Carmen Maura) is an unhappy dumpy housewife. Her husband continually berates her for her sterility, and beats her when she gets on his nerves. And she gets on his nerves quite a bit by constantly praying and mumbling under her breath to various saints. While the husband seems to find fault in Gregoria’s functionality (“All you do is clean and pray”), it’s obvious that Gregoria is a deeply troubled woman–at one point, she stands transfixed in the marketplace believing that she’s watching long-dead fish gasping for air. One day, Gregoria’s husband pushes her too far, and she hits the road with a suitcase and heads towards a village she heard about. She changes her name to Celia and gets a job as a nanny to an extremely wealthy couple who have one small, silent child named Daniel. Apparently, nannies don’t stay long with the family, so mother, Dorita (Ana Fernandez) is eager to give the reference-less Celia the job–no questions asked. Husband Leandro (Evaristo Calvo), on the other hand, sniffs a rat, and remains suspicious of Celia.
As time goes on, Leandro’s suspicions are proved correct. Celia/Gregoria becomes increasingly more attached to the boy, and she begins to see him as threatened by his father. It occurs to her that she should “liberate” Dorita as a fellow abused wife. Celia slides into even deeper religious ferocity–visiting a local religious shrine, hallucinating and hearing voices in her head.
The set-up (the loony nanny left in charge of an innocent, defenseless child) is a familiar one, but director Hector Carre handles the material nicely. Right from the beginning of the film, odd things occur, and it’s never quite clear exactly what is real and what is Celia’s superstitious imagination. This is an atmospheric film, and camera shots capitalize on the peculiarity of Celia’s twisted vision. A thread of black humour runs through the story and this serves to alleviate some of the tension. The film’s conclusion is a little odd, but it is great fun to see Carmen Maura in the role of Celia. Maura is excellent at portraying the neurotic woman (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), but in The Promise Maura isn’t just neurotic–she’s sinister. In Spanish with English subtitles.