Wednesday, March 3, 2010
A Prophet ****
Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup
Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci
"For We assuredly sent amongst every People a messenger."
The power of the signifié is at the front and center of Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet"; a film layered with such rich interpretations that you might even forget to be entertained by its refreshed genre conventions.
Malik El Djebena (Rahim) is nineteen when he lands in prison for assaulting cops (it's never clear if he committed the crime or not), he gets a six year sentence and is thrown to the wolves without a minimal sense of regret from the authorities.
Soon he's being abused by other inmates who steal his shoes and beat him and being a French Arab he doesn't know where he belongs in the courtyard.
He's approached by Reyeb (Yacoubi) an older Arab prisoner who offers him dope in exchange for a blowjob; he refuses, ignorant that this proposition has reached the ears of César Luciani (Arestrup); the Corsican mobster who runs things on the inside.
He needs Reyeb dead and Malik is the perfect guy for the job. Suddenly Malik is faced with two options: either he kills Reyeb or he's killed by Luciani's gang.
Without spoiling any plot twists, Malik finds an opportunity to become someone in this hostile environment, his rise to power being in direct opposition to the subjugation he endures under Luciani's command.
He starts relying on the Corsican protection arguing he's merely doing a job and as such remains in constant limbo, refusing to identify himself with any specific group.
It's this behavior that turns him into a messenger who can travel between gangs, races and social classes but keeps him completely isolated.
If Malik's story can be taken as an exploration of racial identification in young French Arabs it might also be approached as a take on the spiritual apathy in newer generations.
In this way Audiard makes his film a surprising amalgam of ideological and aesthetical currents, that can work as contemporary sociopolitical examination, Oedipal tragedy, spiritual reinvention or old fashioned gangster flick in the vein of Hawks' "Scarface".
By taking on the chameleonic properties of Malik, the movie might be the ultimate kind of character study which shares just as much as it conceals.
Rahim's performance is a naturalist beauty given how much his character evolves from the first scene up to the parabolic finale.
The young man seems completely unaware of the camera and allows it to enter his most intimate moments even when they occur in the most public of paces.
In one of the film's most symbolic scenes Malik is checked by airport security and almost instantly opens his mouth and reveals his tongue, giving the security guard the opportunity to check him like they do in jail.
This moment isn't interesting only because of the obvious way in which prison has inhabited Malik's psyche but also by the underlying theological symbolism it carries.
We realize that by standing with his arms extended parallel to the ground not only does he remind us of the crucifixion but the eventual ascension to the skies, in the plane of course, is literal enough to speak for itself.
Rahim never caves in under the allegorical weight Audiard puts over him and he carries the film in more than one way.
We can never really say we know who he is for sure (does he know himself for that matter?) and Rahim has the ability to become a vessel for our distinct perceptions in the same way Marcel Camus' lead character from "The Stranger" does. Is it a coincidence that they're both French Arabs? Perhaps not.
When to this you add the nuances Audiard puts into Malik's backstory to augment his symbolism (he's illiterate like the Qur'an suggests the last prophet was) you reach what might be one of the films most exciting ideas: can Camus become Muhammad?
If you were to reach this dilemma you will find yourself at the essence of what makes "A Prophet" such a brilliant work of art.
Different people will reach very different conclusions and Audiard's intention of "creating icons" for Arabs might come off as extreme blaspheme or brave postmodern intention.
Whatever your stand is, the director never digests your thoughts in advance, giving the film a profound ambiguity that sends audiences wondering about whether Malik deserves redemption or if he in fact has done himself justice.
If "A Prophet" indulges itself with excessive running time you can't put too much blame on it; it has so much to say that its power can not be contained.