Friday, July 30, 2010

A Prophet (Un prophète)

Jacques Audiard’s 2009 prison crime drama “A Prophet” (“Un prophète”) was nominated for and won an absurd amount of awards, including the prizes at Cannes, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and the Cèsar Awards, among numerous others, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It was tapped for awards across the board, from acting and directing, to writing and cinematography.

Normally that amount of glowing praise raises some red flags for me since my tastes and opinions run somewhat askew to that of the critical mainstream. (I still think of Steven Seagal as a viable film star, that’s where I’m coming from.) However, in this case the admiration and worship are warranted. Not to sound like a jackass who thinks his opinion is important, but “A Prophet” is easily one of the best movies of 2009.
Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is 19 years old and on his way to prison, ostensibly for assaulting a police officer, though the one time it comes up he denies the charge. The young Arab man is thoroughly alone. He has no one, no one on the outside to wire him money or come visit him, no one waiting for him on the inside, no friends, no enemies, no connections in the world at all. He has no skills, is illiterate and an orphan, and has been on his own inside the juvenile system in one capacity or another since he was 11.
Once inside Malik tries to stick to himself, but his cells proximity to Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab informant, leads Cèsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), head of the Corsican gang that rules the prison, to force Malik to carry out a hit on the snitch. As a result of this act, Malik becomes entrenched in the criminal life of the jail. Because he is Arab, most of the Corsicans treat as a servant, as little more than an errand boy to handle the tasks they do not want to touch, though Luciani recognizes his intelligence and potential, and takes him into his confidence.
Malik belongs to no specific world. He is Arab, but not Muslim. He works for the Corsicans, but is not one of them. Like the ghost of Reyeb that haunts him like an old friend, Malik is able to drift back and forth between clicks, to exist in multiple spheres at once. He knows how to use one group with or against another, and successfully navigates the complex cultural and political waters of prison crime. In this way, discreetly scratching and clawing, he climbs up the underworld ladder, his power increasing until he has his hands in many pies, and his influence reaches beyond the confines of the prison walls.
Comparisons to “The Godfather” have come fast and furious for “A Prophet”, and there are similarities, so the association does make sense. Both use crime and the quest for power as an allegory for daily life and family, and the intricate, twisted nature of the criminal world and plot structure are similar. But I think a more accurate counterpart is “Goodfellas”. The rise of Malik from peon cleaning the floor to a criminal with clout closely parallels that of Henry Hill. The power structure is nearly identical, and the inexperienced youngster is taken under the wing of an older, more experienced outlaw, and shown how to survive.
The pacing is deliberate and methodical. It never falters, is never sluggish, and keeps moving forward. While some movies slow down because they don’t have enough story to fill the space that is not the case with “A Prophet”. The pace is intentional, and when it slows down it builds intensity. Even in the more reflective, gradual moments, the plot moves forward, things are accomplished, and tension increases. Good reference points are films like “Oldboy” and “A Bittersweet Life”, films where, even though there action on screen may be minimal and low-key for extended periods, they are never weighed down by the pace. This is a 155 minute long movie that never feels long, and remains powerful throughout the entire run time.
“A Prophet” is by turns bleak and optimistic. Though Malik is initially compelled against his will into the criminal underbelly of prison, and he is capable of horrifically violent deeds, there are still small glimpses of hope, and he never fully loses his humanity. If you are a fan of crime movies, especially any of the ones mentioned above, definitely check out “A Prophet”, it will be well worth your time.
The DVD release comes with a decent collection of bonus material. There are some deleted scenes. Most are pretty good, but with a movie that is already two and half hours long, you can understant why they were cut. They are organized chronologically by character, which is an interesting approach that brings some small insights into the character arcs. The screen tests with star Rahim don’t add anything new to the experience, and why watch a trailer for a movie you already have? A commentary track that features Rahim, director Audiard, and co-writer Thomas Bidegain, is the highlight of the extras. Everything about the prison feels so gritty and authentic that I was surprised to find out that it was all a constructed set. And to give the scenes authenticity the filmmakers largely used extras that had served time.

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