Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prison Power: A PROPHET


A Prophet is a French prison movie that slowly becomes a subdued and subtle variant of the gangster genre. The central character could easily be a young Al Pacino from The Godfather or Ray Liotta from Goodfellas, but director Jacques Audiard is not interested in retracing the character arcs that have been so well traced by those earlier films and their many weaker imitators. Here the protagonist Malik, a young Arab, is moved to a prison from juvenile detention. He is drawn into the web of Corsican gangsters who rule the prison when he is recruited to kill one of their rivals, a gay man recently placed in solitary confinement. There is none of the nostalgia of Scorsese's film and none of the familial angst of Coppola's. This first coerced request for an act of violence draws our protagonist into the gangster life through intimidation and out of necessity. He kills to be safe within the walls of a prison that has guards who will look away from wrongdoing at the request of the Corsicans.

In a performance every bit as good as Pacino or Liotta, Tahar Rahim brings Malik to life with a totally immersive power. He is the character. Rahim communicates vast complexities with the subtlest of postures, the smallest of movements: a shift of his eyes, a twitch of his mouth. It’s an impressive work of acting. As Malik moves closer to fulfilling his first task for the Corsicans, we can see how it will change him. He’s in prison, but he’s not yet toughened in the ways he will soon find necessary.

When the kill comes, it is presented in a sickening way that is far removed from the typical gloss placed on gore. The build up to the act is agonizing as our lead sits with a razor blade hidden in his cheek. His victim, who is under the impression that he is being seduced, is, if not sympathetic, kind, offering a cup of coffee and some conversation. A thin trickle of blood leaks out the side of Malik's mouth. Then, quickly and yet eerily slow, there is lunging, grappling, cutting, slicing, and then a sick geyser of blood splattering the wall and pooling on the floor. Being a gangster is not easy.

The leader of the gang, Niels Arestrup in a tough and empathetic performance, rules with a pathos-infused gusto. He’s a dominating presence of an old man who glowers and growls his orders, strolling with his men through the prison's courtyard, confidently ruling the roost. Arestrup has a way of overcoming his short stature to appear to be literally looking down upon anybody he deems inferior. And yet he has a deep insecurity that begins to sneak in around the edges of his rough persona. He’s old. He’s respected. He’s powerful. He sees how it all can be taken away if he’s not careful.

As an Arab working for the Corsicans, Malik improbably and uneasily begins to rise through the ranks of the prison, having won their respect. His interactions with Arestrup are infused with a tension that arises from their initial affiliation of necessity that grows into an uneasy working relationship. Theirs is an uneasy partnership.

Audiard’s film contains several bravura sequences. The early murder is only the first. Another sequence includes a remarkable scene late in the film that sets the site of a hit on a Parisian street. One of the hired killers glances in a shop window, his eyes drawn to a tempting display, as the tension is drawn out, ratcheting higher and higher. This is a film that achieves an epic sweep by building from, and focusing on, the smallest of observations. As the film continues, any chance to escape the claustrophobic confines of the prison feels liberating from a visual standpoint, but the stakes of each scene on the outside kicks the suspense even higher.

Occasionally A Prophet slips into a pensive mood that puts quite a bit of slack in the pacing that’s otherwise racing. Other times, Audiard gets vague with his symbolism, muddying the intent. I found the conclusion of the film to be particularly vexing, mostly because I didn’t find it as powerful as it seems like it should be. But for most of its run time, the film is a feat of stirring, near-virtuosic filmmaking. It creates a character and setting that are invigoratingly memorable in a film that both twists and fulfills its genre requirements to equal degrees and equal success.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, this is definitely one you have to be in the right mood for! That first kill is one of the hardest scenes to watch i've ever seen. I'd love to see a sequel but i'm not sure there's any intention to make one. Think i gave this a 7.5/10, i thought it was just a little too long.

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