Friday, April 23, 2010
The Oscar-nominated Un prophete (A Prophet), directed by Jacques Audiard, is a textbook example of the cowardice of Hollywood. Audiard's twisty crime tale doesn't have a thing to do with American studios of course, it's as reliably French as the two-foot long baguettes given to each inmate in the prison that is the film's central setting. The real subject of A Prophet would seem to be the ethnic bazaar that France has become; the main character Malik (Tahar Rahim) is an illiterate half-Muslim who starts his six-year sentence with no friends inside or out. Fortunately Malik's other half is Corsican, which soon brings him to the attention of crime boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup in a magnificent display of coiled power). After Luciani extracts one violent act from Malik the young man becomes one of his proteges. The rest of the film is the long arc of Malik through Cesar's hierarchy, his own criminal enterprises, and confrontation with the only father he has ever known.
I bring up Hollywood because unlike what would have happened in an American film absolutely no attention is given to Malik's moral rehabilitation. Indeed, the word "rehabilitation" is tossed around among the prisoners as a joke. Malik does learn to read in prison thanks to his buddy Ryad (Adel Bencherif), but literacy isn't used here as shorthand for some self-awakening to one's responsibility to his fellow man. (Compare the way learning to read is treated here to its use as a device in The Reader.) Ryad will go on to become Malik's partner on the outside and possible passport to post-prison life, but even though he embraces the Muslim faith that confuses Malik he's just as susceptible to temptation as anyone else.A Prophet ends with Malik walking pleasantly outside the prison with a woman on the day of his release, but there is an ominous sign of things to come in the film's foreboding last shot. Tahar Rahim is fine as the film's opaque center; he's discovering what Malik wants and is capable of just as we are. It's Arestrup whose performance you'll remember though. A Prophet is in one way the story of the gradual erosion of Cesar's power, and the 61-year old Arestrup's physical fierceness belies the fear behind his eyes as his prison entourage dies off or ships out and the Arabic population grows.
It's that confusion over identity, or which side of the prison yard to stand on, that is at the heart of A Prophet. For all the details of prison life and criminal plots contained in its 2 1/2 hours (nothing feels wasted), Audiard's confident and unresolved epic is finally a metaphor for a country figuring out who it is becoming now.