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Film Review: A Prophet

March 4, 2010 - 11:54 pm

When people ask me what to go see during the first few months of the year, I always tell them that this is the best time there is for foreign films. Really. The studios don’t have much to offer, so the subtitled pictures finally get a chance to see the inside of a theater. This year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race looks to be a good one, too. The current front runners are The White Ribbon and A Prophet, which opens today at Landmark Hillcrest, and is reviewed below by San Diego filmmaker Jay Drose, who has been working with me the past few months.

A Prophet
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi
Rated R
CityBeat rating: 8

By Jay Drose

In the bleak, snowy courtyard of a prison in France, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is approached by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), the aging yet intimidating boss of the Corsican mafia. He’s given an ultimatum: kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a fellow Arab, or be killed himself. Malik staggers away, muttering that he couldn’t possibly kill anyone, and because we never learn why Malik is serving a six-year sentence or why he has no enemies or friends or religion to account for, we believe him. The stakes are achingly clear, however, since this is a place where you need allies, protection, and an ability to carry out a task like this one, no questions asked.

This is what director Jacques Audiard investigates in his new film, A Prophet, which opens at Landmark Hillcrest today, and which swept the French version of the Oscars, won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes last year, and has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It’s a complete and well-articulated film that avoids the trendy beat of jail crime and its popular slickness. For example, Malik is taught by one of Cesar’s men that he’ll have to store a razor inside his mouth until Reyeb lets his guard down. But it all goes wrong when Malik starts bleeding from his mouth, giving himself away, and turning a bad situation into something much worse. Hits aren’t pretty and guilt still persists, even in prison.

After the mission is carried out, Malik serves two parallel prison sentences: one for the people of France, another for Cesar. He makes coffee, cleans, and brings newspapers and lunch to the Corsicans, learning their language on the sly, and creating a bigger role for himself in Cesar’s ring. But no matter how obedient Malik is to Cesar, there is never any sense of sentimentality between the two. There is always an underlying racism to the relationship and because of that fact, Malik never ceases to build himself up to end Cesar’s dying reign, eventually turning himself into an ironic symbol that stands against the interconnected, indefinite corruption that fights for staying power. When Malik started his sentence he was nineteen years old, illiterate, friendless and poor. It took a prison sentence for him to become an actual criminal and a real threat to the divisions of power.

The strongest element of A Prophet is the ease in which it navigates past the zero-sum nature of most stories set inside prisons. Audriard spends no time lamenting the iron bars around the characters; these are people who are alive and resourceful. The performances are so strong they draw little attention to themselves. There is a great sense of ease and authenticity amongst the characters as they roam inside the shamefully overcrowded, real world environment of the French prison system.

This isn’t always a steely-eyed look at the prison system and its cyclical environment of crime and punishment. There are moments in which Audiard leaves the endless climate of vengeance and instead daydreams. Towards the end, in an unforgettable scene of intensity, we see the smile of a man who has built himself wealth, power, and trust in the vulnerable world of crime. The title enters into the equation in that one scene, and we are left with the sense that amongst his many new talents, Malik has also aquired foresight—or at least enough of it to let himself daydream and enjoy the freedom of standing on a white sandy beach in the French Riviera.

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