Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

Audiard's use of confined space in A Prophet

Little Cesar

Prison intakes can be terrifying. You see it in the prisoners' faces--if it's their first time in a penal institution they often don't know what to expect, often don't know if you mean harm or not. Standing barefoot and shivering on bathroom tiles, they are about as naked--physically and spiritually--as a human being can be, and at their most open to life lessons; positive or negative, it depends on who gets to them first (though in prisons it's really no contest).

So it is with nineteen-year-old French-Arab Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), who's serving six years for assaulting a police officer--he's being strip-searched and has the caught-in-the-headlamps look of an animal whose life is about to irrevocably change. Malik falls swiftly into trouble--his shoes are stolen, and when he tries to recover them he's beaten; at the showers he's offered hashish in exchange for oral sex; when he walks into the recreation yard, he's approached by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), leader of the prison's Corsican gang--they want Malik to accept the man's sexual advances, get close, slash his throat with a razor blade hidden in the corner of the mouth.

Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete (A Prophet, 2009) is a crash course in prison life--what are the gangs, who to join, what is of value and available for buying, selling, smuggling in and out of the prison walls. Cesar finds Malik useful; despite his gang members' racism (they call him "dirty Arab"), he has Malik making coffee, running errands, doing little tasks that help Malik familiarize himself with the inner workings of the prison. Audiard and his writers (Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit) take a page from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather--Michael Corleone's transformation from fresh-faced college graduate to stone-cold gang lord--and transposes it here, complete with Michael's first Mafia-style murder. Malik's first is as agonizingly protracted, far less smoothly executed: as his unwitting target offers coffee, Malik realizes that he's bleeding from the blade hidden in his mouth.

The burst of energy that follows typifies much of what the film has to offer: documentarylike squalor; drawn-out tension; sudden, unglamorized violence. What breathes unruly life into the film are the bits and pieces you haven't quite seen before, not even in Coppola's epic (which in my opinion is overfamiliar, perhaps even overrated)--the hostile faces--Arab, Corsican--staring at each other from across the courtyard; the DVD players and radios delivered by cart to one's cell; the everyday delivery of fresh baguettes, as if hot bread were a right every bit as guaranteed as your weekly phone call.

If Malik is the central consciousness in the film, Malik's knotty interaction with Cesar is the film's central relationship. Certainly there's a father-son affection there, as Cesar lets his mask of brutality slip to reveal a lonely, insecure old man (mind you, this doesn't dilute Cesar's more monstrous qualities, merely makes him grotesquely fascinating). Malik seems to count on Cesar's patronage, but when Cesar at one terrifying point turns on him, pressing a spoon into his eye, the affection seems to shatter. That said, one is never surprised that Malik for all his softness grows into his criminal shoes: the boy is starved for knowledge (in school he learns reading, writing, basic Economics, Arabic; he learns--this on the fly--the problems of negotiating with people, dealing with disparate, distrustful groups), is endlessly ambitious, is watchful, constantly alert. He catches some unbelievable breaks--ever so often he manages to turn a swift ambush into a golden opportunity to network or make connections--but not once does he doubt his good fortune, or question the general velocity of his life; with the swiftness of the very young (and utterly ruthless) he makes his bloody progress up the pyramid.

Might point out the sociological movements reflected in the film: if an army is often made up of the same percentage of Caucasians and minorities, so are jails. Cesar ruled the courtyard back when Corsicans dominated the prison population; now that Middle Eastern populations have been filling the country, they have also filled the prison courtyards.

And always--always the image of Malik's uncomprehending expression during intake haunts one's view of Malik and his gradually evolving, gradually more confident face. The difference between the two faces of Malik's is like the difference between you and me, between potential and fulfillment, between wishful thinking and reality--watching the film, the difference sometimes feels huge, sometimes feels like no difference at all.

Audiard unlike Coppola doesn't have much space in which to develop his epic--his story unfolds largely in the cramp cells and narrow hallways of the French prison. His camera is largely handhold in the verite fashion, but not excessively active; it moves in for quick emphasis, then holds the image till his point is made (sometimes--as with Malik's first murder--the point takes excruciatingly longer to register). Occasionally he uses black masking, reducing Malik's field of vision to a single face, a single object; one thinks of D.W. Griffith's fluid framing, and how it can so effortlessly reflect a determined man's often narrowed focus.

Audiard's narrative line is not always clear (Malik's final series of maneuvers needs a program to keep the characters straight), and the footage of a ghost (Malik's first victim) haunting him is unintelligible (you know something's going on but you're not fully sure what). Overall, though, Audiard does a remarkable job of recording Malik's gradual corruption and rise in power--and here, again, you get this image of a sleeker, more self-contained Michael Corleone, stepping out to quietly conquer the world. An excellent film, one of the best of the year.

In French, with English subtitles. DVD features include deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, screen tests and a commentary with Director Jacques Audiard, Actor Tahar Rahim and co-Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain. 

First published in Businessworld,  8.12.10

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