Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Learning a new career in prison

By Edward Copeland
France's Oscar nominee for the 2009 foreign language film prize bears an uncanny resemblance to the prison sequence of Scorsese's Goodfellas in the beginning, only its Henry Hill equivalent is an Arab Muslim just beginning his internship with the mob, in this case a Corsican one, behind bars in A Prophet. The similarities soon dissipate in director Jacques Audiard's film which, despite its length, moves briskly and keeps the viewer's rapt attention as it charts the rise of a lackey to a kingpin during his brief sentence for petty crime.

A Prophet, which didn't receive U.S. release until this year, stars Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena, a young Arab Muslim given a six-year sentence in a French prison, though the nature of his crime is never made clear. He enters the prison as an awkward man, proclaiming his innocence and seemingly unable to fit in with any of the groups who reign over various portions of the prison, even the Muslim gang, where he's housed. One inmate in the shower offers Malik some hash, provided he blow him. Malik justifiably gets offended and refuses, despite his desire to toke up.

Word of the incident makes it way back to the inmates that hold the largest measure of control: a group of Corsican mobsters led by the aging boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Seeing Malik's vulnerability while getting word from the outside that the same Muslim prisoner will soon testify against friends of theirs on the outside, Cesar offers Malik protection in exchange for Malik getting close to the witness and killing him. So begins Malik's criminal education. He begins rehearsals to fake that he's going to blow the man, while really using the tryst as an opportunity to take his life.

Audiard directs the killing scene in a way that you imagine a real murder, especially one being committed by a reluctant amateur assassin such as Malik, would occur. It's as awkward as Malik himself and very messy, but Malik succeeds in his mission in the end and from that point on, he's the Corsicans' errand boy, despite the fact they frequently call him a "dirty Arab."

That scene of violence isn't the only one that Audiard truly rubs in the viewer's face. With all the movies and television shows I've seen in my lifetime, I've witnessed innumerable depictions of violent acts, but somehow in A Prophet, almost all of them, while bloody and often horrifying, seem to retain a character-driven nature, which is quite an achievement.

I won't delve into too much more detail into how Malik maneuvers his to achieve his climb, but it's fascinating because he's not a sudden criminal mastermind. The fact that he rises through the criminal ranks and successfully navigates so many separate criminal interest often is as much a matter of dumb luck as anything else. In fact, one such instance is how he earns the nickname the "prophet."

While Malik constantly beats the odds against veteran hoods, it never comes off as unrealistic and the film proves riveting to watch. Rahim is very good as he grows from the gawky, guilt-ridden kid to the self-assured criminal. The other truly great performance comes from Arestrup as Cesar, the aging Corsican kingpin. He tries to maintain the image of his strength, but he also projects a bit of sympathy as the bulk of his crew are transferred to other prisons and he realizes he's just a vulnerable, isolated old man.

What's also interesting about A Prophet is that despite the fact that its main character and many others are Muslim, religion barely comes up and neither does terrorism and even though the characters' actions hardly can be called admirable, the depiction is refreshing in its own way.

A Prophet is only the second of the five 2009 Oscar nominees I've managed to see and while I liked The White Ribbon, A Prophet beats it by a mile.

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