' Cinema Romantico: A Prophet

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Prophet

Life is a knowing mistress. The last movie I saw before viewing "A Prophet" in the theater was a re-watching of Spike Lee's "The 25th Hour". In that film Edward Norton's Monty Brogan is celebrating one final night of freedom before commencing a 7 year prison sentence. Monty pulls no punches regarding the scary reality that awaits. "I'm not gonna make it," he says flatly. "There's a thousand guys up there who are harder than me. Those guys are gonna use me up and end me." The movie ends as Monty departs to serve his sentence.

"A Prophet", the 2009 French film nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, starts with 19 year old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an Arab born in France, entering prison for a 6 year sentence. His reasons for being there are barely addressed. He has one line about being "innocent" but it is never explored. These issues are not relevant. The fact he is there is all that matters. He has no friends, apparently, on the outside and, more importantly, no friends on the inside. Early on he is beat up and his shoes are stolen. He cannot read or write. He cowers in his dank cell. He does not seem long for this world.

The inmate next to Malik is of utmost importance to the Corsican crime boss, the most well dressed man in the yard, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup, so restrained until the situation demands escalation) who essentially has run of the prison. This inmate (Hichem Yacoubi) is set to testify against Cesar's Corsican cohorts. Thus, Cesar seeks out Malik and explains he will kill this witness, or be killed himself. These are the only options. You may have read about this murder. It is brutal, it is unflinching, there are no cutaways and there is no music (no music for the whole first half-hour) to provide release. It is just there. The movie, however, directed by Jacques Audiard, does not rush into this development. It allows Malik to take a very deliberate and realistic path to it.

Once Malik has finished this task he is granted protection from Cesar, though with protection also comes ownership. He turns into Cesar's errand and/or whipping boy. At the same time he makes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif), whose sentence is nearly up, and begins to learn how to read while also teaching himself the language of the Corsicans as he is in there presence every day. He becomes allies with another inmate, Jordi (Reda Kateb), a low level drug dealer, and the two of them form a criminal alliance separate from the thugs to whom Malik owes his debt.

There is more than a whiff of a French Henry Hill ("Goodfellas") floating through the proceedings, a young man's rise through the criminal ranks, scored to hard-hitting pop songs, serving an older crime lord while forging something, whether good or bad, for himself. "A Prophet", however, is much more matter of fact and the view is decidedly anti-romantic. Certainly Malik's status and circumstances improve as the film progresses but its look - even when he is granted various day-long leaves to attend to business matters - is gray and grimy.

Yet through it all, despite all the hard-edged decisions he has to make, empathy for Malik is maintained. Maybe it's because most of us know if we had to stand there on that first day of prison we would assume we would never make it, that there's a thousand guys (probably every single guy, in my case) up there who are harder than us and that are gonna use us up and end us. The film has allusions to the prophet of the title with Malik's occasional visions and with the ghost of the man he has killed hovering over him but the film seems to know the other-worldly cannot compete with our most primal and primitive need of survival and that even at our most primitive we will never be able to curb our need of always wanting just a little bit more.

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