Friday, 5 February 2010

A Prophet (Un Prophete) (2009)

* * * * *

(Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2009)

A Prophet
is as sociologically important a work as Kassovitz’s groundbreaking La Haine, it races and snaps like Scorsese’s The Departed, and it is rumoured with the cinematographical poetry of Audiard’s own The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre Mon Coeur S'Est Arrete). What we have then is a truly versatile and wise motion picture directed by a man who is doing everything possible to evade the shadow of his legendary father; instead he is casting his own inventive form over Europe and now across the Atlantic.

The story is of a young Arab male, Malik (Tahar Rahim), who has been sentenced to six years in a (particularly) violent French prison. Malik enters prison an ignorant loner and exits a learned gangster. His first point of contact in jail is Corsican mafia-boss, Cesar Luciano, who immediately enslaves Malik in a straightforwardly abusive relationship. Uneducated, and stripped of pride and autonomy, Malik embraces the opportunism of his criminal role. He works his way up by contributing to the Corsicans’ gangster operations as a puppet whose strings are the only agenda. Progressively Malik becomes more authoritive. He learns to read and write (in a differently directed but equally epiphanic set piece as Kate Winslett's self-education in
The Reader), and he is promoted to Cesar's assistant as the other Corsicans are released. But Cesar is aeging fast, physically as well as reputably, and Malik's prophesy will emerge as a reality; the title of Clint Eastwood's new release, Invictus, is based on William Henley's Victorian poem of the same name, but its final lines can be sooner applied to Audiard's film:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

In Malik we witness the most egregious treatment of the human mouth since
The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger's fascination with the Chelsea smile. Malik's first 'job' for Luciani is to murder a gay Arab named Reyeb, after sexually enticing him in order to catch him off-guard. He is told to hide the weapon, a safety razor, in a mouth that will subsequently and profusely bleed; to take it out only for the kill. Indeed Rahim's execution of his character's ineffable psyche is immersive enough to transcend mere thesping and to invite comparisons with Ledger, Nicholson, Day Lewis and so on. He takes on the challenge of the very title of this movie and fulfils it with seemingly effortless abandon. Because Malik is illiterate, it is fitting and never pompous that the cinematography shimmers and extrapolates and becomes a character in itself. Malik's beautiful and haunting dream of a deer in the road is not only prophetic but also symbolic of the vulnerability of Audiard's players. Images in the memory, the present and toward anxiety are everything to A Prophet.

The score by Alexandre Desplat is irregular: a predominantly soft and slow canticle for a violent motion picture. Piano and strings bruise with melancholy and yet there are moments of furious hip hop and percussion that buttress Audiard's already chilling social realism. The soundscape is inimitable and transcendental, responsible for an instantly classic murder scene that takes place when Malik is on leave, physically if not criminally. It takes time and stomach-corroding suspense for our protagonist to approach the parked, opaque vehicle containing his prey. When the moment comes for him to finally pull the trigger, a cacophony of gunshot explosions shift from snappy snare to hollow bass drum as the audience become embroiled in the deafness and momentary paralysis inside Malik's head. In the same way as Coppola, the Coens and Dominik nauseated, and toyed with, us in the
Godfather, Miller’s Crossing and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford respectively, here Audiard’s intense portrayal of killing is at once repulsive and tragic, subtle and yet forcible as a chapter-climax.

Unsurprisingly, this won the 2009 Cannes Grand Prix, the London Film Festival's Best Film Award, and has now been nominated for Best Foreign-language Film at the Academy Awards. Fated to endure,
A Prophet is a numbing paladin for French cinema, and a model for any auteur inquiring about what prison, survival and liberty each mean.

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