Sybil was right
A Prophet (Un prophete)
This was my most eagerly anticipated film of the current NZFF – Sight & Sound foreshadowed its brilliance many issues ago, and I was a fan of Jacques Audiard’s work since Read My Lips (Sur mes levres) even before he gave us the excellent The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar 2010 (it lost to The Secret in Their Eyes), there has been plenty of buzz. It is therefore with a sigh of relief that I can say “they” were right.
One might have thought Audiard would cast Heart‘s lead, Romain Duris, in his latest film of the French criminal underworld. But wisely he did not – instead, similarly eschewing the intrinsic menace of Vincent Cassel (his lead in Lips who is arguably now too ubiquitous for this low-key, gritty realism), we are treated to the blank canvas of Tahar Rahim, in his first feature film lead.
Rahim plays a young Frenchman of Arabic descent, Malik El Djebena, who is sent to prison for six years. It’s made clear in the opening scenes as he is introduced to prison life (the interviewing, strip-searching and washing-down notably less brutalising than in other prison dramas like Hunger and In the Name of the Father) that Malik is on his own – he has noone on the outside to visit or send him money, and no prison family waiting with open arms. As a result, he is swiftly appropriated by the Corsican mafia, headed by the effectively authoritative Cesar Luciani, and forced into unwillingly performing business for them that then sets him up under their protection.
It’s an interesting quandary that immediately puts the audience in his shoes, and had me considering how I would act in the same situation. And I have to say, when confronted by the Corsican thugs and given no option, I doubt I would have stood my moral high-ground and refused. And thus Malik becomes the prison’s porter and Luciani’s boy, inevitably given increasing duties as well as privileges as he works his way up the mafia ladder.
Rahim’s performance is superb, not just in its subtlety but in the way he slowly develops Malik’s character as we watch him grow into his prisoner’s life over the years. Rejected by the Muslims (for being “un Corse”) and insulted by the other Corsican lackeys who resent an Arab being their boss’s perceived favourite, by the end of the film he has aligned himself with key players, done his fair share of betraying and conniving, and has his own criminal enterprise up and running on the outside. Of course, none of this is obtained easily, and the moral dilemmas abound.
I frequently forgot I was watching a film, so realistic was the production design and dialogue, and so unobtrusive the camerawork. The story is engrossing and seemingly lacking in judgement – we are not set up to root unreservedly for Malik, yet we do care how his future unfolds. Nor does the film make an obvious statement about the prison system (unlike the aforementioned prison dramas, which leave you in no doubt that jails are abusive environments where men are treated like animals). Granted, the biggest benefit I personally can see from spending time inside would be the ability to learn some serious criminal skills – and the opportunities for furthering this career once released seem to be guaranteed and manifold. Now if that’s not an argument for prison reform, I don’t know what is.