Friday, April 9, 2010
A PROPHET (UN PROPHÈTE) / ****
Distributor: Sony Classics
Release Date: February 26, 2010
Running Time: 150 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Is it too early in the year to say I’ve seen its best film?
I know that Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet (Un prophète) may seem like last year’s news, since it was already nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. But it didn’t receive a release stateside until February, making it an official 2010 release. It may indeed be too early to call it the best film of the year, but I’d be shocked if it didn’t make my final top five.
The title character is Malik El Djebena, played with astonishing truth by newcomer Tahar Rahim. The fact that this is essentially his first role is nothing short of remarkable. He owns every scene of the movie. Malik is the eyes and ears through which we view the events that unfold.
“A Prophet” takes place over a six-year period, and it all revolves around Malik’s prison sentence. The reason Malik is in prison is never exactly revealed, but it doesn’t matter. The movie isn’t about why he’s in prison but about what happens to him while he’s there.
Malik enters prison as a shy 19-year-old kid protesting his innocence. He keeps to himself, and it’s his loner status that makes him useful. In the prison, a group of about 20 Corsican inmates pretty much control the operations – most of the guards are on the take. The leader of the group is César Luciani, played by Niels Arestrup as a more sadistic Don Corleone. Arestrup never strikes a false note and never lets the César character descend into caricature.
The plot kicks into high gear when César needs one of the inmates killed, and since he can’t risk losing of his men, he gives Malik an ultimatum – kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), or be killed. A lesser film would have jumped straight to the murder scene, but this one takes the time to show the build up and the preparation. The actual scene itself is shocking but not in the least bit gratuitous.
Audiard also doesn’t let Malik explain himself in a revelatory monologue or a cheesy voice over. His expressions and his mannerisms do the talking, but the real beauty of the film is that the audience doesn’t always, if ever, know what he is actually saying. We watch as Malik grows up a product of his society. The murder puts him in the relative good graces of César. He has earned the protection of the top gang in the prison and starts doing odd jobs for them. Definitely not accepted as one of them, he is constantly referred to as “the Arab.”
For being a good prisoner, Malik is granted sporadic leave, which César uses to his advantage and makes no bones about it. “Your leave belongs to me,” he callously remarks. Malik puts up with the abuse, but always seems to have something simmering beneath the surface. While initially illiterate, Malik teaches himself to read and write, and absorbs everything around him, even learning to speak Corsican just by being around it for a length of time.
In a film splattered with shocking violence, it’s difficult not to notice how beautifully the violence is shot. A scene confined to an SUV is one of the most impressive I’ve seen. But look at some of the small moments as well: when César asks Malik for a favor, César leans in close, and the camera focuses just on Malik’s face while César whispers in his ear; observe as Malik gets patted down at an airport and instinctively opens his mouth and sticks out his tongue; note how a single punch to the gut packs more power than any other single act in the film.
The film follows Malik’s six-year journey, but I wouldn’t dare reveal all the twists and turns here. Even at 150 minutes, “A Prophet” never wastes a second, and nothing feels out of place. This is an astonishingly brilliant film that never relents. “A Prophet (Un prophète)” is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Theater: Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater
Time: 715 pm
Date: April 9, 2010