Saturday, March 6, 2010

Un prophète: Jacques Audiard’s Thrilling ‘Ride’

Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (A Prophet) is one of the most strikingly original French movies of recent release and in a country that regularly puts out superb films, that’s saying a lot. It’s also unusual in that its antecedents aren’t the typical art house fare that most current French filmmakers pay homage to and excel at. Un prophète (A Prophet) draws instead from the commercial prison dramas that have long been the staple of Hollywood and independent American cinema.

The film begins with a young fresh faced North African Muslim man, Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim, making his film debut), entering the rough French prison system. He’s been convicted of fomenting violence against the police – a charge which may or may not be true – sentenced to six year of jail and thrown into an environment that will see him used a pawn in a long running internecine and low level war between Arab and Corsican prison inmates. Both those groups have their grievances against the larger French society, within and without the prison walls. The Corsicans, whose country is technically occupied by France but given semi – autonomous status as one of the country’s 26 regions, are agitating for full independence, with the inmates from Corsica demanding to be treated as political prisoners. The Muslim prisoners and the community at large face the brunt of French discrimination and their own inability or refusal to fit into France’s secular culture and society. Malik, who is illiterate, begins in the film as an ‘innocent’ who likely will face a difficult time in the stir, but as the movie ends is revealed as a master manipulator and fixer. How he gets that way is the gist of this complex, ragged and intricate drama, which recently won the César award for Best French film at home and is up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars on Sunday.

At first, we seem to been deposited into a Gallic version of HBO’s Oz, with Malik, coerced by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the leader of the Corsican prison gang, to off a rival Arab prisoner Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) and said potential victim offering to give Malik drugs in exchange for sexual favours. But it’s soon clear that Audiard has much more on his mind than proffering the routine sex / violence / racial tropes of your typical prison movie. As the movie plays out, Mailk undergoes a subtle transformation comparable to the slow moral decay of Al Pacinos’s Michael Corleone in the first two Godfather films. He learns to read, and to understand Corsican, unbeknownst to Cesar, who employs him as a gopher, thus allowing Malik to overhear what the Corsicans are saying in their native tongue and eventually using that knowledge against them. He also learns how the prison system really works, the bribes that get you perks, including better food and even the occasional woman smuggled into the prison for sex. And when he is allowed day visits to Paris, he connects with his fellow Arabs, and starts to carry out some nefarious actions for them and Cesar at the same time. Soon enough, he begins to attract the notice of the Arab criminal higher ups, earning the somewhat ironic nickname of ‘The Prophet”, which has religious connotations, of course, but also fantastical ones, as Mailk seems to assume an otherworldly aura and one impervious to danger, besides.

Un prophète, which runs about 2 and 1/2 hours, takes its time setting its story in motion, meandering, in fact, as a rich, detailed portrait of France’s prison system slowly emerges. It’s both like the American prison system, complete with racial / ethnic rivalries, but different, too, as it comments directly on the unique French treatment of its minority populations. The jail’s guards, for one thing, aren’t nearly as villainous as in American films but more of an oblivious, ineffectual grouping that fails to recognize – or chooses to ignore – what the prisoners are really doing behind bars. The movie is also, at the end, a fairly bloodless one, even though there are startling acts of violence occurring within it; it’s more a deep character study of a man who comes into his own, a man who just happens to be a convict, a fact that means less and less as the movie progresses. It’s a deft reversal of the optimistic American archetype of the plucky individual hell bent on moving beyond his dire situation and defeating all obstacles in his way, even those of being stuck behind bars.

By contrast, Malik’s success seems almost pre – destined, something that is out of his hands entirely. Perhaps, he really is a prophet. (One oddity; in its fixed determination to set forth its specific point of view, one that is solely from the Arab / Corsican angle, the film suggests that France either segregates its prisoners by race or that there aren’t any white criminals in jail, both of which can’t be true.) Rahim, who won a César for Best Actor – as did Audiard for Best Director – is riveting on screen as you try to suss out who and what Malik really is, something you won’t figure out until the closing credits and maybe not even then. The rest of the cast, including the scarily charismatic Arestrup as Cesar, who won for Best Supporting Actor, are note perfect, too. But most impressive of all is Audiard’s gripping direction; each frame of the film pulses with excitement, as a highly skilled director uses his camera to maximum, visceral effect. The movie has the energy of the best dramatic American cinema – Taxi Driver, The Godfather 2, even Nashville - but one that subverts the American narrative as it translates it into another language.

Audiard pulled that off, too, in his equally exciting but comparatively simpler 2005 film De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté ( The Beat That My Heart Skipped), his successful remake of James Toback’s 1978 film Fingers, which chronicled a man torn between his criminal and artistic desires with those worlds represented by his Italian father and Jewish mother. Audiard smartly dropped the ethnic references of Fingers, which weren’t applicable to France in any case, and added a relevant social subtext to the story, improving on the original in the process. Both films, and Audiard has only directed five features since 1994 – mark him as a director who commands attention, one of the few French filmmakers adept in making superb genre pictures - Guillaume Canet whose Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One), based on an American mystery novel by Harlen Coben, was one of the greatest thrillers in years, is another – and someone who isn’t afraid to snap the neat and overly polished format that seem to infect so many genre films. I’m not sure Un prophète completely holds together and I suspect it’s not really trying to, but whatever its shortcomings, it’s sure to hold your attention throughout. It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

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