Thursday, 11 February 2010


It appears to be neck and neck this year for the Best Foreign Language Oscar between France's Un Prophète (A Prophet) and Germany's Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), from Michael Haneke - I'm hoping to catch the latter over the next week as I only just realised it released here last November and somehow managed to slip by my radar, which has been hanging for it since it took out the Palme d'Or. This two-horse race of course means that something completely different will pull through for the win, though sadly not Samson And Delilah, which didn't follow through on its shortlisting to the nomination stage.

I caught director Jacques Audiard's previous picture The Beat That My Heart Skipped (I'm dead certain that it was released as The Beat My Heart Skipped in Australia, which I think sounds soooo much better) back when it was out and about in 2005 and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was responsible for my infatuation with Romain Duris, in fact. I recall taking issue with a few points, but I think I gave it four stars at the time. His follow up, which took the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, I can't fault.

Un Prophète is the story of petty criminal Malik (Tahar Rahim), sentenced to a half dozen years in prison. French-born but an Arab by heritage, he falls in with the Corsican gang who run the Parisian prison he finds himself in. The Corsicans, led by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), need someone to take out an informer in prison briefly, and call upon Malik, who has absolutely no desire to take part but is told in no uncertain terms that he has no option - now that he knows of the plan, either he does Ryad or the Corsicans do him. Once the job is done, however, he finds himself part of the Corsican gang, initially just doing their dirty work (literally - he makes them coffee and cleans up after them), but eventually, as the majority of the Corsicans are transferred to another prison, becoming right hand man and confidante to Luciani. 

Meanwhile, the Arab contingent is building itself up, not willing to take more shit from the weakened Corsican faction in the prison. Yes, the Corsicans did once own the guards, but as they become fewer it starts to be the Arabs who are wielding more power. Malik, not one to be left out in the cold, is consorting with a few select inmates to run a small drug trade, which, on day leave as his sentence nears completion, whilst still running errands for Luciani, he converts into a powerful cartel using old Corsican contacts and another ex-inmate Reyeb, released on compassionate grounds after becoming quite ill.

As his parole date gets nearer and nearer, Malik realises he holds the power and takes over the Arab gang, leaving Luciani virtually on his own and utterly powerless, with no friends either inside the prison or on the outside, entirely unable to exact revenge for the traitorous actions of his once-protege. 

Un Prophète is an intricate study of the economics of corruption. Malik says all along that he doesn't work for the Corsicans, he works for himself - when it is in his interests that work will cross over with the Corsicans, but when his interests change, he will quite happily double-cross to ensure his safety with the other side. In the process, he becomes incredibly powerful considering his young, innocent (for want of a better word) and naive roots.

Rahim as Malik is a true revelation. Virtually unknown previously, he is now up for a BAFTA Rising Star award for his portrayal, carrying this fairly long film almost entirely on his own back. His transformation from pitiful to powerful is subtle but definite, played out slowly but carefully so that by the end you are in no doubt of his strength. Arestrup as the prison kingpin is dominating but vulnerable. His downfall is not a surprise, as his reliance on other people fearing him (coupled with the fact that, outside of the opening, Malik really isn't) is so entrenched that, when his structure falls away, it is really just inevitable, a matter of time before he falls back to the bottom of the heap.

Cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine perfectly captures both the prison, the outside, and the fantasy world that Malik so often escapes to. Alexandre Desplat, who somehow managed to score only, oh, five other 2009 releases (including: ChériCoco Avant Chanel; Twilight: New Moon; Julie & Julia; L'armée du crime, and; The Fantastic Mr Fox - lazy bastard), does an extraordinary job with the soundtrack, aided by some ripping choices by the music supervisor - I'm always happy to hear Sigur Rós turn up, as I'm sure you can imagine.

And through all of this, Audiard keeps a very firm grip on things. Very firm. The film is spectacularly strong, riveting in every moment. It moves through relentlessly, not letting up, but without overbearing you. Worthy of every award going, it just remains to be seen whether Haneke will get his due from the Academy or whether Audiard can keep him waiting a few more years. 5 stars.

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