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Archive for January 25th, 2010

Review: A Prophet

In just over a weeks time I will be writing an article on the best foreign language Oscar for the LAMB. Because the movies in this category don’t have to be released in America to qualify many of them haven’t been seen outside their own country to date, so the chances of me seeing them here in England is slim at best. A Prophet is only the second of this years short listed films that I have seen.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a nineteen year old French-Arab. The movie begins with his processing as he goes to prison. Sentenced to six years for an unspecified crime Malik has clearly been in trouble all his life but this is his first time in real prison. Only semi literate and with no friends inside it isn’t long before he is targeted by the ruling gang who want to exploit him to their own ends. At first by accident more then by design he begins his rise through the ranks. Always on the outside Malik doesn’t fit in with the Corsican gang that rules the prison but because of his involvement with them isn’t accepted by the Arab prisoners.

Confidently directed by Jacques Audiard in his first movie since the BAFTA winning The Beat That My Heart Skipped five years ago, A Prophet is nominated in the Best Film Not in the English Language category this year. Tahar Rahim is almost always centre stage and our main focus, this isn’t a problem as he puts in a fantastic performance. The supporting performances are also excellent, particularly Niels Arestrup as César, the leader of the Corsicans. As the plot unfolds the acting is what holds the movie together, it also helps the two and a half hours fly by. Early in the movie there are a couple of real standout scenes, one involving a brutal murder. Before that the preparation for the killing involves concealing a razor blade in his mouth. This is one of the many aspects that makes the movie gritty.  The look of the film has a constant dull darkness to it, even the exterior shorts are devoid of sun and the movie has a very grey pallet.

There are occasional descents into fantasy that involve visits from a ghost of Maliks past. These scenes don’t completely work for me. They do little for the benefit or advancement of the narrative and don’t always feel relevant other than to balance the prophecies suggested in the title. This may have become evident as the film was put together, some of these scenes appear in the trailer but not the movie so must have found themselves on the cutting room floor. Unlike so many prison movies this isn’t a story of redemption as the system or the characters do little or nothing redeeming. Instead the film works more in an existential way as we see Malik develop as a character in the brutal and violent setting. There are also suggestions that the film is a political statement with the events within the prison reflecting social and political change in France. I will leave French audiences to decide on this point.  Either way the movie works on a simpler more base a visceral level as a hard hitting dramatic thriller that always compelling and often thought provoking.

It is one of those films that comes along a couple of times a year at most that movie fans even those normally put off by subtitles should still see, this is one such movie. The busy Sunday evening screening I just attended suggests that may happen. The fact it has been chosen as the French submission for the best foreign language Oscar ahead of the epic Mesrine speaks volumes for the quality of this movie. In answer to my first question, I would be surprised if the movie doesn’t make the final nominations for the best foreign language Oscar but The White Ribbon is a slightly better film in my opinion. As to what will win you never can tell with the Oscars. I just hope a it doesn’t meet the same fate as so many other successful foreign language movies, to be remade in Hollywood minus its soul and backbone.

 Four Stars out of Five

 

 

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