Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Audiard's Academy Award-Nominated A PROPHET opens -- to haunt us, every one

Having now seen all five of the full-length films directed by Frenchman Jacques Audiard, TrustMovies is fairly certain that he will never want to miss any of this fellow's work.

While Audiard is not among my favorite film-
makers (perhaps because his quirks and my own don't mesh), still, his films never fail to surprise and move me, even if I am often put into a singularly bad mood by the time of their finale. The man's latest and also his best -- the Academy-nominated and Cannes/BAFTA/European Film Award-winning A PROPHET (Un Prophète) -- is another example of his odd mix. While I cannot in good conscience say I "enjoyed" the movie, it has not left my mind for long over the two months since I first viewed it. There are ideas, moments, contradictions -- even entire scenes -- that simply will not go away.

Audiard (shown, left) seems drawn again and again to the criminal element, and where he sometimes finds it can be surprising (the secretary played by Emmanuelle Devos in Read My Lips). Since the setting for his newest work is a prison, we have nothing but the criminal element in which to bathe. The director/co-writer (with Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit) offers us up a "hero" who is as close to a tabula rasa as you might find: an illiterate, half Arab/half French, blank slate (his parents have long ago left him) who having already been in prison several times, must now serve six years there.  This character, Malik, is played by Tahar Rahim (shown below, who earlier essayed the role of one of the unfortunate policemen in Inside) in what should be a career-making performance.  Slight and with petite features that, in prison at least, would mark him the "femme," Malik draws the attention of another Arab, Reyeb (a wise and sexy Hichem Yacoubi), who propositions him in the showers but is immediately rebuffed. 

The Corsican Mafia who controls the prison from the inside, needs to have Reyeb rubbed out, and because the marked man has the hots for our hero, Malik is chosen to do the job. Given a choice between murder and his own death, Malik must agree and is taught how to do the job efficiently and fast.  The scene of the murder is grueling, especially because Reyeb turns out to be a smart and relatively decent guy. Once Malik has proven his worth, the head of the Corsicans (Niels Arestrup, shown below, in a performance as rich and full as it is ugly) makes him the group's lap dog & gopher.

One of the Audiard's most audacious and unsettling moves is to have the dead Reyeb (below, right) return again and again throughout Malik's prison term -- as a ghost, a vision, a vendetta, a confidante.  These appearances take on an almost religious sheen, and why not?  Islam and its men -- riddled as they are with that weird combination of homosexuality, hypocrisy and the fervor of martyrdom -- would of course turn this event into something momentous, life-changing.  It almost seems as if, in the manner of those pantheistic worshipers who thank their animal victims for giving up their lives for the cause (food, shelter, clothing), that Malik is doing something similar with his memory/vision of Reyeb.

This murder and its aftermath set the tone for events to come, as Malik learns, grows and changes into something fierce, feral and very clever, while keeping his own counsel, with the help of the imagined Reyeb. How he achieves what he does is striking, near-
phenomenal. Yet Audiard makes it believable, if sometimes frust-
ratingly dense.  A Prophet runs a full two-and-one-half hours and is packed with plot and incident.  The changing face of France (and by extension the west) is seen in the prison yard, cells & power struc-
ture; Audiard makes this clear without unnecessary underscoring. 

By movie's end, we and Malik have come a long, long way, and the result is an enormous accomplishment that is also frightening and depressing. The tabula rasa that was Malik has been filled -- but by what?  It's not all bad, certainly, but Audiard's social critique is still devastating.  To quote the Bard: "What a piece of work is man." And what a shameful waste of resources he has here become.

From Sony Pictures Classics, A Prophet open this Friday in New York City and the Los Angeles area, with a very wide national rollout in the weeks and months to come. You can find all the dates/cities/theaters here.

No comments: