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Friday, February 10, 2012

Un Prophète

With time on my hands and no inclination to do all of the stupid shit you are supposed to do during the holidays I thought that I would catch up on what was going on in the world of movies.  I can’t remember the last time that I saw a movie that I thought was good, let alone great. I waded through a couple of “Best of 2010” lists until I clicked on Newsweek ‘s picks and found A Prophet at the top. I read the short paragraph about it and they had me with “prison movie.” For some strange, inexplicable reason I love prison movies. I suppose that it has something to do with prison being some sort of ultimate challenge for a man. It just happens that I was also looking for something to watch in French, not that I understand film French all that much. Movies are always very difficult for the student.

Apt Pupil and Master
Malik al Djebena (Tahar Rahim) enters the prison for what we learn will be a six year sentence. He looks as frightened and alone as anyone could possibly be in this impossible environment but his tattered body testifies that he’s not really new to hardship and crime. I like how the director doesn’t insult us by interfering with the beginning of the film by showing scenes from Mali’s tragic childhood. Instead we just see the result of his youth, a body covered in scars and a 19 year old boy who knows he needs to learn fast to survive inside. His first opportunity to prove himself—to make his bones, as they say in gangster movies—comes all too soon.

In the prison yard we see two uneven sides of prisoner affiliation.  The Muslims on one side represent the majority, albeit unorganized and directionless.  On the other side are the heavily-outnumbered Corsicans who are organized, violent, and well-connected with the prison administration. Malik is singled out by the Corsican boss, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) to perform a rather tricky assassination for them.  Their first meeting together isn’t a job interview; it’s a threat of kill or be killed.  

If you get one thing from this film it’s that movie stars are not only unnecessary to make a great film, but that they are often a huge impediment. I couldn’t imagine this movie with the usual Hollywood assholes in the leading roles. Think about what a complete piece of shit The Departed was mainly because of the ridiculous cast of superstars.  For all I fucking know this actor playing Malik is a Franco-Arab criminal and I sure as hell believe that the Corsican boss is the thug he portrays in the film.  The realism in this movie is unparalleled, unmatched in any movie I have ever seen depicting prison life. It’s more life-like than any documentary could be, if that makes sense.

Scorsese has nothing on Jacques Audiard and he had better be studying this guy because the stakes have been raised in the crime film genre. Save your money on Jack Nicholson and other has-been assholes, forget about chase scenes and explosions, and try to keep your story as close to the truth as possible.

(I originally posted this last January)

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