'Un Prophete' was released in 2009 and was written and directed by Jacques Audiard. I have to admit that I have not previously heard of this director. I have been a fan of francophone flicks for some time but Audiard is a name which I definitely don't recognise. That being said, this movie has been headline news in the film circuit for some time and I snapped up the opportunity to review it. Gleaning huge praise from audiences and critics alike, the movie picked up the Grand Jury and Golden Palm prizes at the 2009 Cannes Film festival. With this very impressive cinematic debut, 'Un Prophete' went on to gain an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film this year, sadly losing out to 'The Secret in Their Eyes'.
The cast, like the director, are complete unknowns to this reviewer. However, my recent review of 'The Last Emperor' definitely proved that novice actors can sometimes deliver powerful performances. In this movie Tahar Rahim takes on the lead role, playing Malik El Djebena. At only twenty seven years old, it was most certainly a brave leap of faith (or perhaps insight) on the part of Audiard to cast such a young and inexperienced actor in the lead role. Niels Arestrup ('The Diving Bell and the Butterfly') takes on the co-lead, playing Ceser Luciani. Although Arestrup has a lot of acting experience, none of it is really top flight stuff. The rest of the cast comprise a mishmash of actors, whose experience ranges from little to none.
We are first introduced to Malik when the young man is incarcerated for a crime he apparently didn't commit (sounds familiar!). From the list of standard prison questions, it's clear that this young man is completely average, with nothing special (nor any skills) to show for all his years on the Earth. He is uneducated, illiterate and somewhat socially defective. Plunged into the harsh and unforgiving French prison system, Malik realises that he is a lone fish out of water. Although he appears tough and streetwise, it's not long before he is relieved of his possessions and marked as a definite target for abuse. Receiving an offer of protection from the joint's powerful and highly influential resident Mafiosi, in exchange for a “favour” of course, Malik is dragged headfirst into the seedy underbelly of the prison's criminal underworld.
Although completely devoid of education, it becomes clear that Malik is a sponge for information with a massive propensity to learn, soaking up a huge number of facts from his prison education classes and rapidly learning the business of who really runs the prison. Forming his own alliances in secret (with outcasts of society), he continues to fawn to the demanding whims of the Corsicans who despise him because of his Arab descent. The crux of the matter is that the Arab contingent of prison criminals view him as Corsican scum and shun him even more then his greasy mafia buddies. Oblivious to the rules of society, Malik follows his own instincts which, coupled with his rapidly expanding knowledge and savvy, allow him to gradually climb the criminal ranks.
Having caught this movie initially in a limited cinema run, I was very impressed at how well the piece works. This is a fact largely down to the central performance of Rahim. He is simply stunning in this role and I was completely blown away at how well he performed. Beginning as a naive, unsure and almost timid pseudo-criminal, Malik transforms into a savvy mastermind, who cleverly weaves an intricate plan together to perfection. Rahim treats his character extremely carefully, allowing a demure Malik to mature into a confident manipulator and natural leader. His facial expressions are superb; his smile, when having achieved another step up the ranks, reflects both his delight and his innate surprise that he has actually used his smarts to such good effect. Body language is also perfection, with flinches, trembling hands and painful grimaces bringing genuine winces from the viewer. This young actor really is one to watch and without his central performance to marvel at I'm not too sure that this movie would have been so successful. While not quite matching Rahim's performance, Arestrup also turns out a magnificent turn as the fallen mafia don. His rage is almost tangible and his every word his tinged with malice and (later on) desperation. The rest of the cast perform admirably and as a collective they are very impressive indeed.
The direction from Audiard is also a major factor which makes this movie such a joy to watch. Opening with a pinhole view of Malik's perspective of the world, Audiard expands the shot to signify Malik's expanding mind. The singularity of Malik's mindset returns later on as he focuses on matters at hand. There are also other symbolic inclusions, which mark character progression in a novel manner. The cinematography is tight and claustrophobic, perfectly capturing the confined interior of the prison cells. During the outside portions, the frame becomes wide and expansive, creating a feeling of spaciousness, in complete contrast to the prison based portions. The palette is dark and cool, reflecting the cold and unwelcoming air of contempt which shrouds all the inmates. Every shot is framed to perfection, with unusual camera angles and hand held portions adding flair and energy. The plot is clever enough to keep the viewer guessing but not convoluted enough to introduce any unnecessary confusion. The central characters are very well fleshed out and the viewer is given time to know them and watch them grow, thus inviting the opportunity to invest emotion. Dialogue is slick and is used to really drive the evolving storyline. Stylish captions introduce various “scenes” as well as the primary players, which is a clever way to avoid unnecessary dialogue or filler back story. This effect also breaks the movie into easily digestible portions, which lightens the load of the hefty run time. That being said, there was not one point (during the run time) that I looked at my watch, which is always a strong sign that the movie is enjoyable.
France has produced some excellent modern movies over the past couple of years ('36 Quai des Orfevres', 'Ils' and 'Cache' spring immediately to mind) and I have to say that this one may be the best of them all. It is a very complete package. The direction is very solid, with plenty of visual flairs in the majority of the scenes. The collective cast are magnificent, with two central performances which are really something special. The plot is clever, engrossing and thrilling enough to warrant the hefty run time (which is used to good effect to provide tremendous characterisation). It's also worth noting that Corsican, Arabic and French feature heavily and all three are perfectly delivered by Rahim. Some of the more mystical elements of the piece, such as Malik's ability to predict future occurrences (hence the name prophet), felt a little wishy-washy and while they most certainly do not detract from the feature, they didn't really add a whole lot (except for maybe a little confusion!). I took them to be a reflection of Malik's subconscious/mindset but I could be completely wrong! I also felt as though a bit more action could have been included, although don't get me wrong, this movie contains some thrilling sequences that will have you at the edge of your seat. I will most definitely be returning to this movie to try and unravel some of these mysteries. Overall this is a fantastic movie which provides a twisting, unpredictable story, which is delivered in a dark, moody and very engrossing manner. I would highly recommend this to all fans of good movies and this release gets a very high eight.
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