Sony Classics December 25


Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In Competition)–With "A Prophet," the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard has made a powerful, intensely realistic prison drama that contributes to the crime genre and benefits immensely from the raw freshness of its lead character. 


At midpoint of the festival, "Prophet" ("Un Prophet") dominates the critics poll as the best feature in competition, and there are reasons to believe that few other titles would match its level of emotional power and technical artistry. Thus, expect some major jury awards for directing or writing at the end of the event, perhaps even the Palme d'Or or the Special Jury Prize. The estimable Sony Classics has acquired the picture and will release it in December, after traveling the global festival road with stops at Telluride and Toronto Film Fests in September.


Working slowly but methodically, Audiard has made only a few films, but each one of them–"Read My Lips," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped"—is deeply thought, intimate, well-acted, and visually impressive. In the new picture, which is a point of departure, he works on a larger scale than the usual with a larger ensemble of actors. The film is deservedly long (two and a half hours), taking its time in developing the main characters, their conflicts, and some more existential ideas about crime and life in prison.


Neophyte actor Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, an illiterate Arab youth, only 19, who lands in prison. Upon arrival, he is unaware of the place's formal rules, informal norms, and various dangers that are part of the everyday life.


The first, more familiar reel depicts the violent encounters and humiliations and the struggle for survival that define prison life, particularly for young and naïve first-time offenders. It's in the second chapter that Audiard begins his deeper exploration of the characters and their dilemmas, physical as well as moral.


Forced under threat of death by the Corsican gang that runs the prison to befriend and kill a fellow Arab, Malik basically becomes an obedient slave-soldier in exchange for safety and protection. With time, however, Malik educates himself in the ways of the world and develops enough strength and personality to challenge the dominant power structure in jail. One of the film's new angles is the focus on the Corsicans (not the usual Sicilians), a group seldom represented in cinema, which hates the "bearded ones," the Muslims, as they struggle to maintain the upper hand.  Using both legit and illegit means, Malik becomes a calculated manipulator, playing different groups off each other, violating his own codes, to the point where he begins to have a gang of his own.

Most of the encounters are imbued with raw intensity and authenticity that ring true, though I have to admit that I have seen them before (in American and other films). In this respect, "Prophet" is a strong feature, with personal touches by Audiard, but not highly original.


Occasionally, Audiard, a humanist at heart, punctures the harsh realism with some stylized and lyrical sequences, such as the ghostly image of the man Malik had killed. 


Intermittently, there's also much needed humor in the verbal exchanges and physical interactions among the prisoners and the guards in what is essentially a grim and depressing portrait of a prison, which could easily serve as a microcosm of the larger society.