"Un prophete", de Jacques Audiard (Variety, Screen)

By Justin Chang

A UGC Distribution (in France) release of a Why Not Prods., Page 114, Chic Films (France) presentation of a Why Not Prods., Chic Films, Page 114, France 2 Cinema, UGC Images (France)/Bim Distribuzione (Italy)/Celluloid Dreams (France) co-production, with the participation of France 2, Canal Plus, Cinecinema, with the support of La Region Ile-de-France and La Region Provence Alpes-Cote d'Azur, in partnership with the CNC, in association with Sofia UGC 1, Soficinema 4 and Soficinema 5 Distribution. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Directed by Jacques Audiard. Screenplay, Thomas Bidegain, Audiard, based on an original idea by Abdel Raouf Dafri, after an original screenplay by Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit.

With: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Reda Kateb, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bekhti, Pierre Leccia, Foued Nassah, Jean-Emmanuel Pagni, Frederic Graziani. (French, Arabic, Corsican dialogue)

Genre specialist Jacques Audiard continues his fascination with the secret inner lives of Gaul's criminal underworld in "A Prophet," a tough, absorbingly intricate account of a young French-Arab thug's improbable education behind bars. Applying his jangly aesthetic to a broader canvas than usual, Audiard navigates his protagonist through a grotty, at times overcrowded labyrinth of racially divided gang factions and roughly sketched-in crooks and cons. Though less pleasurably offbeat than the helmer's well-received "Read My Lips" and "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," this is solid, sinewy pulp fiction with strong arthouse prospects abroad and on local release Aug. 26.

Clocking in at an imposing 2½ hours, "A Prophet" is Audiard's fifth and longest feature to date. This has less to do with the intrinsic interest of the central character -- 19-year-old petty criminal Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), who's been sentenced to six years in prison -- than with the thick network of warring tribes he finds himself mired in and ultimately forced to master. It's one of the understated ironies of Audiard's script (co-written with Thomas Bidegain) that for Malik, crime doesn't begin to pay until after he lands in the clink.

Pic breezes its way through the usual prison-movie conventions as Malik is strip-searched, roughed up and quickly enlightened about his place on the jailhouse food chain. In short order, he's targeted by the leader of the prison's Corsican gang, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped"), who threatens Malik with death unless he murders a fellow Arab inmate, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi).

Audiard sustains tension best in these early scenes by emphasizing Malik's physical nakedness and vulnerability. Though prone to his own flashes of temper, he's mostly shy, inarticulate and on the defensive, his eyes shifting anxiously as he takes in his grim surroundings (a visual strategy approximated by the darting handheld camerawork of d.p. Stephane Fontaine and sharp, kinetic rhythms of Juliette Welfling's editing).

Even after Malik completes his mission -- in a sequence of queasy, unnerving brutality -- and confirms himself as a jailbird to be reckoned with, he remains a loner and an outsider, accepted by neither his Corsican superiors (who call him a "dirty Arab") nor the Muslim hoods who form the prison's other dominant bloc. But even though he can barely read or write, Malik turns out to be a quick study in all the ways that count.

The lengthy remainder of the film spans several years and is devoted to Malik's thriving career in and out of prison. Under Luciani's orders, he manages to secure a few days' leave at a time for good behavior, which he uses to deepen his criminal connections and bump off rivals, often working with his only real friend, ex-con Riad (Adel Bencherif).

A certain mechanical quality inevitably seeps in as the web of conflicting allegiances takes on a dizzying complexity; Malik comes to seem almost invincible, his upward trajectory circumscribed by the screenplay and the pic's not especially subtle title (it could just as easily taken the name of Audiard's 1996 feature, "A Self-Made Hero"). Offsetting these qualities are the tale's headlong momentum, Audiard's flair for pulse-pounding setpieces and the intensely physical lead performance of Rahim, who holds the screen in a role that tends more toward recessive, inward-looking moments than showy ones.

Other perfs are effective enough in mostly one-dimensional parts, with the singular exception of Arestrup's chilling turn as a crime boss who will accept nothing less than Malik's complete submission. While Audiard deploys a few modernist touches such as intertitles, slo-mo and iris shots, as well as a full-bodied score by Alexandre Desplat, an atmosphere of gritty realism predominates, borne out by Michel Barthelemy's stark production design and the film's matter-of-fact approach to the corruption of the prison authorities.

Camera (color), Stephane Fontaine; editor, Juliette Welfling; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Michel Barthelemy; costume designer, Virginie Montel; sound, Brigitte Taillandier, Francis Wargnier, Jean-Paul Hurier, Marc Doisne; line producer, Martine Cassinelli; assistant director, Serge Onteniente; casting, Richard Rousseau. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2009. Running time: 154 MIN.


By Jonathan Romney

Dir. Jacques Audiard. France/Italy. 2009. 150 mins.

When it comes to hard-bitten crime cinema, Jacques Audiard has few equals in Europe, and his violent, gripping prison drama A Prophet shows him extending his range with unimpeachable command. The story of a gauche young inmate who rises through the criminal ranks to become a formidable player, A Prophet works both as hard-edged, painstaking detailed social realism and as a compelling genre entertainment.

The only thing that might hamper commercial prospects is a labyrinthine, sometimes perplexing narrative, but otherwise the film – to be released in France in August - should have the same international appeal as last year’s Cannes crime hit Gomorrah. Its unapologetically testosterone-laden tenor will give the film a resonance way beyond the international art-house constituency that embraced Audiard’s last film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Expect this stimulating film also to be much discussed in the French media in terms of its topical backgrounds, the national prison system and France’s Islamic population.

Set largely within prison walls and featuring an almost exclusively male and non-professional cast, the film details the prison career of Malik el Djebena (newcomer Rahim), a 19-year-old man of North African origin but estranged from the Muslim community. Sentenced to six years on an unspecified charge, Malik is chosen by Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), feared kingpin of the prison’s reigning Corsican gang, to kill a prisoner named Reyeb (Yacoubi) who initially offers Malik drugs in exchange for sex. Malik commits the bloody murder, and – thanks to Luciani’s near-total control of the prison’s internal workings - gets off scot-free. This makes him a lieutenant in the prison’s Corsican gang, initially entrusted only with menial duties and disparaged as an Arab outsider.

Haunted by visions of a ghostly Reyeb, and determined to get on, the illiterate Malik not only learns to read, but teaches himself Corsican, surreptitiously learning the ins and outs of Luciani’s business. Another inmate, Ryad (Bencherif), becomes Malik’s friend, later his ally on the outside. When Luciani arranges periods of leave for Malik, entrusting him with various criminal missions, Malik takes the opportunity to do some business of his own, setting up a drugs trade with Ryad’s aid. Life gets increasingly dangerous for Malik, both inside and outside prison walls, but he seems – partly through Reyeb’s benign, unearthly influence - to lead a charmed life. Powers of prophecy are attributed to him after surviving a bizarre car crash – an incident presaged in an enigmatic fantasy sequence.

Immensely detailed both in its accounts of prison life and of the politics of organized crime, A Prophet comes across as both a realistic film and a deeply cynical one: it is extremely matter-of-fact in depicting a dog-eat-dog world.

Audiard fans may miss the subtler psychological shadings of his earlier films, as well as some of his more fabulist story-telling tendencies and stylistic flourishes. Shot by Stéphane Fontaine with a brutally restricted iron-and-cement palette, this is a business-like film, with a cinematic language as punchy and stripped-down as they come: only a few stylistic frills (the aforementioned fantasy sequence, a blurry iris-style effect evocative of Malik’s claustrophobic existence) break the general tenor, and even the occasional visitations of the dead Reyeb are assimilated perfectly, barely compromising the overall realism. Chapter titles and captions identifying key characters help us keep a tab on the film’s complexities.

Newcomer Tahar Rahim carries an extraordinary weight, on screen practically in every shot, and proves a mesmerising centre to the film, limning Malik as an unformed, seemingly weightless figure at the start, who gradually acquires considerable depth, forging his personality and mind through hard conscious struggle. Rahim’s quiet, seemingly artless charisma makes Malik immensely sympathetic, even though this ruthlessly lucid film makes no bones about the amoral lengths he goes to in the name of survival. A largely unfamiliar cast – very few of them the central-casting plug-uglies usually seem in prison dramas – give the film a flesh-and-blood plausibility, while the weather-beaten Niels Arestrup (who also appeared in Audiard’s The Beat…) is formidable and menacing, eventually even vulnerable as the old-guard don.

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