Film review: ‘A Prophet (Un prophète)’
Seldom do violent prison-gang crime dramas with huge splotches of testosterone infused subtext elicit responses such as "refreshing" and "exhilarating," but that’s exactly the reaction I had upon emerging from my first screening of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
After viewing "A Prophet," from French Director Jacques Audiard , I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t stop babbling. I felt like I had stumbled into a zone contaminated by pure psychic energy. It had flat-out torched me to the bone! I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so unexpectedly and totally intoxicated by a work of cinematic art.
Not that the film wasn’t flawed in some respects. It’s just that the manner in which the unrelenting storyline unfolded somehow put all intellectual issues on the back burner. You could deal with them later. For the time being, allowing your intuitive centers to sort themselves out had taken priority. It was not unlike returning to your home planet from a "Stones" concert.
I was well aware going in that Audiard’s film had walked-off with the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival last spring and that it had been selected to screen at Sundance TwentyTen in the Spotlight category which features out-of-competition films deemed worthy by global-roaming film-fest programmers.
That knowledge, however, did little to prepare me for the next two-and-a-half hours. Admittedly, for a film buff less engrossed in the on-screen tale, that might seem a bit long. But somehow, somewhere during the first reel, I had been relieved of all sense of the film’s temporal identity.
From the moment 19-year old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate small-time French hoodlum totally estranged from his Arab roots, begins his six-year sentence, I was on prison time. If squirming in a theater seat became an issue, proper attention had not been given. Survival, not comfortability, had become the point in question.
To relate to the physical and emotional landscapes of Audiard’s film as merely ‘alien’ would be to ascribe to it a comfort zone neither intended nor perceived. You were now doing hard time and you better get used to it. And, if you wish protection from the ongoing violence, you’d also better align yourself with one of the competing Corsican and Arab gangs.
The kill-or-be-killed reality quickly has Malik under the thumb of all-powerful Corsican kingpin Cesar Lucciani (Niels Arestrup ). Running menial and not-so-menial errands for Cesar, both in and out of prison, becomes the norm. Cesar, you see, virtually runs the joint! He’s able to put his man on the street almost at will.
Malik, however, is a sponge, continually soaking up information relevant to his standing both within the prison yard and on the streets outside. Constantly tightroping the wobbly event horizons of the innumerable black holes that hound him at every turn, he begins running a few errands of his own.
It is upon this transformation of Malik El Djebena from a terrified teenager to a confident master of his own identity on which Audiard’s brilliant film turns. Transcending genre with pure cinematic intensity never looked so good.
The title "Un prophète" translates from the French unpretentiously into "he who can tell the future." There is no spiritual conotation. In fact, the film flaunts a scrupulous lack of morality. On the screen, as Yeats might say, a terrible beauty is born.
Having recently resurfaced from a self-imposed submersion into Truffaut, Goddard, and other French New Wave auteurs, I was anxious to finally see the much-heralded Audiard’s work. Not to compare, certainly, but just to experience. Well, I’ve been there and done that and I can give you this piece of advice: when in this company, don’t forget to breathe.
"A Prophet" will screen Saturday, Jan, 30, at 9 a.m. at the Egyptian Theatre. For ticket information, visit http://festival.sundance.org/2010/boxoffice .
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When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.