Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A terrifying journey behind bars

A Corsican gangster (left) and his Muslim protege.

About a quarter way through the French movie A Prophet a title card pops up to introduce a new character. I've seldom been so relieved to see an obvious cinematic device because up until that moment, I felt as if I'd been thrown into a French prison and given a crash course in how its brutal pecking order worked.

My unease stemmed from the skillful ways in which French director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) turned his prison movie into a sustained visceral nightmare. Audiard makes us feel as if prison bars are slamming behind us, and like all good prison movies, A Prophet poses an uncomfortable but necessary question: What sort of behavior becomes acceptable in a brutal environment?

It's not just confinement that creates the movie's tension. It's the sense of danger that looms in every encounter, the feeling that one not only has lost one's freedom but also has become potential prey for any number of criminal factions. It's hardly news that prisons generate their own power structures, but that familiarity doesn't make A Prophet any less unsettling.

Audiard ably shows the inequities of prison life, conducts a complex study of ethnic loyalties and exposes the ways in which a relatively na├»ve “criminal” – in this case a young Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim) -- comes of age behind prison walls. Of course, coming of age in prison isn't quite the same as going through the same process on the outside. At the hands of ruthless Corsican gangsters, Malik learns the criminal trade and discovers a capacity for violence that probably never would have emerged under different circumstances.

Thanks to an immersive filmmaking style, Audiard penetrates the prison experience in ways that very few directors have. We not only watch Malik, but we're forced to confront the choices he makes, to wonder how far would we go to make it to our next birthday or maybe the even to the next day?

Not long after being introduced to prison, Malik comes under the sway of a Corsican gang led by Cesar Luciano (Niels Arestrup). The gang offers its protection in return for a favor. But no matter what Malik does, he's still an Arab, an as such, he never fully earns the trust or respect of his Corsican masters, who treat him like a servant. Malik has protection from the other convicts, but who'll protect him from his Corsican oppressors?

Malik's relationship with the quiet but volatile Cesar proves entirely compelling. Played by Arestrup with the terrifying authority of a man who seldom needs to raise his voice to exert his power, Cesar becomes one of the screen's most unrelenting gangsters. Cesar seems to have more power in the prison than even the warden. The only thing he can't do is free himself. Beyond that, he runs the place as a kind of extension of his pugnacious authority.

Seldom off screen, Rahim gives a performance that more than does justice to Malik's range of prison experiences. He seems to mature before our eyes, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that Malik is a very young man of limited experience who probably didn't deserve to be jailed in the first place.

Brutal, gripping and tense, A Prophet stands as one of the strongest film's to come out of last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize. At various times, the relationships among the characters can become blurry and a deep comprehension of the movie's cultural dimensions may require a bit more background than most American's possess.

But the thrust of Audiard's prison drama is inescapable, and A Prophet earns an adjective that's used far too often and for far lesser achievements: It's unforgettable. A Prophet begins its Denver run Friday, March 19.

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