Arts and Culture

'A Prophet'

Great story, great acting, Oscar nominated and French. This prison yarn surely ranks among the year's best films.

By Steve Burgess 12 Mar 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Networking to get ahead: scene from 'A Prophet.'

No one sees all the Oscar nominees. We have lives. I'm sure even the Academy voters don't catch them all. So there's a natural, if unfair, tendency to cheer for the movies you've seen against other movies that could, for all you know, be classics. Thus far I have seen only one of the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last week's Oscars -- Un Prophete (A Prophet), the French nominee, which opened last week at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas. Un Prophete lost out to Argentina's El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secrets of Others). Haven't seen that one. But I booed anyway. It's hard to believe any of the other nominees could top Un Prophete, which is almost guaranteed a spot on discerning Vancouver film-goers' Best of 2010 lists.

There have been a lot of prison movies through the years but surely none as complex as director Jacques Audiard's two-and-a-half hour epic. Un Prophete is the tale of a 19-year-old French Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim) who lands in the Crowbar Hotel for some crime which is neither shown, explained, nor excused. (Already we're leagues ahead of nonsense like TV's Prison Break where almost everybody behind bars is there on account of some unfortunate misunderstanding.) Stuck on the lowest rung of the prison pecking order, Malik is prey for Corsican mobster Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who recruits him to commit a horrible bit of inside dirty work. Malik tries to wriggle free but soon finds there is no escape from the Corsican's bullying influence. He does what is asked, in the process becoming a new soldier in Cesar's prison army. His lot begins to improve. Even so, as an Arab outsider in a tight Corsican group, Malik is now at the bottom of a new pecking order. Changing circumstances will alter the playing field. Gradually the illiterate Malik will learn to read, develop new skills, and find unlikely allies -- including a ghostly cell mate who can tell the future.

Terrifying performance

A clever young man without prospects gradually makes his way in the world -- Dickens used to tell stories like this. More in this particular vein, so did Martin Scorsese. Pulled deep inside the criminal subculture we tend to forget just what sort of progress we are cheering.

The real prophet here may be director/screenwriter Audiard, who had the foresight to name Arestrup's character Cesar. His performance as Cesar subsequently won a Cesar, the 2009 prize for Best Supporting Actor in a French film. If Hollywood has eyes to see, Arestrup, previously in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, will become a lot more visible thanks to his magnetic, terrifying turn.

Un Prophete is no prison sentence, but at 150 minutes it is a long stretch inside. Some of the later plotting is difficult to follow -- I am at a loss to explain a couple of its twists. A couple of Audiard's stylistic choices, such as periodic screen titles, are also puzzling. But the problems are no barrier to grasping the general flow of events. Most of all it just gives you a warm feeling to see a young man realize his potential. Un Prophete is the feel-good-murderous-prison-drug-trade movie of the year.  [Tyee]

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