Sunday, 31 January 2010

A Prophet/Un Prophète (2009, Jacques Audiard)

Charting the day to day survival and eventual rise to power of a young man while serving a sentence in a brutal French prison, A Prophet masterfully melds an intimate personal journey and sprawling crime thriller in a fashion as rich as the works of Bresson or Mizoguchi. Jacques Audiard has created an atmospheric boundless tour de force piece of cinema, one of the finest offerings of the year, and undoubtably his best work to date. 

The relatively unknown and fresh actor Tahar Rahim plays Malik, a 19 year old delinquent beginning his six year sentence. Introduced to him as he's admitted, the camera never strays far from him throughout the drama to come. Despite a close fixation on the young man we learn very little about him, omitting any hint of a backstory and only hinting at his convicted crime - the supposed assault of a police officer. 

It doesn't take long before Malik is approached by a Corsican gang headed by the frightful César (Niels Arestrup) who proposition him; a new inmate (Reyeb) has arrived who will later testify in court, in their interest Malik is told that if he doesn't kill Reyeb he will be killed instead. What follows is an uncomfortable sequence of Malik preparing to reluctantly go through with the plan, he must gain Reyeb's trust, get close to him and kill him with a razor blade hidden in his mouth. The plan goes through with intense digust and marks for a cataclysmic event in Malik's life. Now working under the protection of the Corsicans, Malik rises somewhat in the prison system through learning from his new dangerous liaisons and using the prison's education plan to its full advantage. 

As he rises and gains more and more control in and out of prison thanks to well orchestrated pardon days, Malick is haunted by Reyeb's death, appearing in ghostly apparitions throughout the film. Malik's guilt is shown quite literally in these visitations but is never voiced, in fact none of his thoughts or emotions are externalised here. While the film seems to paint its central protagonist as a blank slate muddied by his incarceration, it's Rahim's assured performance and natural likability that keeps us drawn to him. To be kept this emotionally distant from Malik but utterly absorbed by his decisions and general wellbeing is a mighty achievement.

A Prophet is such a rich piece of work it's difficult to decipher through the layers exactly what it's trying to say about a number of things, an obstacle that makes the film enigmatically irresistible. Audiard's films have always featured men on the fringes of society and here this is pushed even further; as Malik is pardoned on individual days for release he is a free man while remaining an inmate. More elaborately his mix of French/Arab ethnicity causes him to be segregated due to the prejudicial battle of his environment; to the Muslim inmates Malik is viewed as a Corsican and even by some of the Corsicans he serves is still seen as an Arab, thus treated disrespectfully by both camps. This sense of identity is perhaps more abstractly proposed in Reyeb's apparitions, after all, Malik never once shows any connection to his Arabic heritage (It's even hinted that he was an orphan) and through his reluctant murder of Reyeb (an Arab man) he is perhaps killing this disconnected part of himself, a sinful action with a fruitful return. One can even argue that Audiard is critiquing the justice and subsequent rehabilitation system as Malik combines his new background of organised crime with newly acquired knowledge from his economics class. With Malik's close friend Ryad released and struggling with family and minimum wage, the only answer is crime.

There is so much to be drawn from A Prophet, a film that on the surface seems like a barebones prison drama but is in fact one containing detailed nuances and more thematic levels than one would think possible in a narrative that never stops pushing forth the tropes of a standard crime thriller. 

If Jacques Audiard's male protagonists have always been situated on the fringe between societal normality and damaging undertow, I likewise believe his films have to this point been delicately balanced on the edge of great filmmaking. A career full of undeniable quality, though one could see this filmmaker was yet to peak as he slowly built towards a truly exceptional piece of work. With A Prophet I believe he's arrived there.

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