Friday, March 5, 2010

Movie Review: A Prophet

A Prophet ****
Directed By:
Jacques Audiard.
Written By: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain and Abdel Raouf Dafri & Nicolas Paufaillit.
Starring: Tahar Rahim (Malik El Djebena), Niels Arestrup (César Luciani), Adel Bencherif (Ryad), Hichem Yacoubi (Reyeb), Reda Kateb (Jordi), Jean-Philippe Ricci (Vettori), Gilles Cohen (Prof), Antoine Basler (Pilicci), Leïla Bekhti (Djamila), Pierre Leccia (Sampierro), Foued Nassah (Antaro), Jean-Emmanuel Pagni (Santi).

No matter what the political implications of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet are (and there are a lot of them), what haunts me about the movie is the difference between the opening and closing scenes in the film. When Malik (Tahar Rahim) walks into prison in the film’s opening scene, he is 19 year old kid, given six years for punching a cop, with no family and no friends either in prison, or outside. Two and half hours later (approximately 4 years in movie time) he walks out of jail having become a murderer, drug dealer and major crime figure. In a very real way, Malik had to go to prison to become a criminal.

When Malik arrives at the prison, he is completely alone. He is a Muslim, but not a devout one, so he is stuck into the cell block populated by the Muslims. Any chance he has of befriending anyone there goes away almost immediately when two inmates beat him up for his shoes. From then on, he doesn’t trust the other Muslims.

Then something happens. A new Muslim comes into the prison, for only a few weeks until he has a chance to testify at some big trial. He approaches Malik about selling him some hash, and when Malik says he has no money, the other inmate, Reyab (Hichem Yacoubi) says he can arrange it with the guard so Malik can come into his cell and suck him off. Malik refuses, but there are no secrets in the jail. Word gets back to the Corsicans, who essentially run the prison, of Reyab’s offer. They want Malik to kill him for them, and tell him that if he doesn’t they’ll kill him instead. When Malik slashes Reyab’s throat with a razor blade, his fate is sealed. He no longer has to worry about anyone messing with him, because he is under the protection of the Corsicans, led by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), but he still doesn’t really have any friends. The Corsicans treat him as their servant, making him clean up and make them coffee. Malik doesn’t mind so much. He is always listening, always learning.

Eventually Cesar will need more and more from Malik. Most of the rest of the Corsicans are either released or transferred to a prison closer to their home, meaning that Cesar has no one else he can trust. His grasp on the prison is slipping, as the Muslims, who have always out numbered the Coriscans, now wield some influence with the guards as well. When Malik gets the chance for work release, Cesar starts sending him on errands for him – meeting and negotiating with his associates on the outside. What Cesar doesn’t realize is that Malik is no longer just working for him. He has made contacts with Jordi (Reda Kateb), the prison drug dealer, and another inmate who has since been released Ryab (Adel Bencherif), and he has his own thing going now. He is turning himself into quite the little drug kingpin. We realize long before Cesar does that eventually Malik will turn on him – having learned all he could from him, sooner or later, Malik will have to make his move.

I have mentioned the Corsicans several times in this review now, and if you’re like me, you probably have no idea who they are, as I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them on the news. Apparently, some Corsicans (from Corsica an island governed by France that is between France and Italy, that have their own language), believe they should have independence from France, and some committed terrorist acts to try and further this aim. The Corsicans in this movie say they are political prisoners, but really operate much more like the Mafia then the IRA.

Writer/director Audiard draws parallels between the Muslims and the Corsicans. Both are angry with the French government, and feel marginalized and have lashed out in violence against what they believe are their oppressors.

A Prophet looks at this fascinating, rarely seen subculture with his eyes wide open. Audiard is meticulous in his view, but his characters never become ciphers – never just mere stand-ins for his larger political issues. A Prophet is a fascinating, violent look at these men. This is a key movie in Audiard’s career – the moment he goes from the promising director of such films as The Beat My Heart Skipped, into a master filmmaker. His movie is an epic crime drama, the likes of which we rarely see. The pace is dizzying, the scope huge, and yet intimate. He never loses sight of Malik in the grander scheme of things. Newcomer Tahar Rahim delivers one of the best performances of the year as Malik – his confidence slowly building, as he transforms from the naïve kid we see at the beginning of the film, into the hardened criminal at the end. Malik’s transformation is almost tragic, but Rahim makes it feel real and genuine. Malik may be happy with himself by the end of the movie, he doesn’t realize that he has sold his soul.

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