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03/12/2010

Tallying up the 'Prophet' and loss statement

Malik, a bewildered 19-year-old Arab, doesn't know what to expect when he's processed into a French prison at the beginning of the French import "A Prophet."

Winner of the second place Grand Prix Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "A Prophet" ("Un Prophète") was also up for an Foreign Film Academy Award Sunday night.  It lost out to  Argentina's "The Secret in Their Eyes."

"A Prophet," directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard, is a coming-of-awareness prison drama unlike anything I've seen before.  Malik (Tahar Rahim) cannot read or write when he's locked up.  Corsican prisoner elder César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), holding court on a prison yard stone bench, spots the young man's naiveté right away.

César, who wields more power than the guards and probably the warden himself, spots something else.  Another Arab arrived at the prison on the same day.  Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), only to be locked up for 10 days before he testifies against the Corsican mob, has been targeted for assassination.

Since Malik speaks Arabic and especially since Reyeb offers Malik hashish in exchange for sexual favors, César forces new, naive inmate Malik to attempt the hit.

"A Prophet," in French, Arabic and Corsican with subtitles, follows the transition of this young man as he morphs into a tool of the prison underworld, then as he blossoms into his own as perhaps someone more cunning and ruthless than even César could imagine.  Malik has visions; sometimes of ghosts  still burning as if just back from hell and sometimes of future events.

In only his fifth feature, Audiard ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped") wields power and confidence himself.  This is a drama of grand, if brutal style.  Malik is perplexed, intrigued and seduced by his steadily growing power base.  He gets advice to learn to read and write from a man he is about to brutally murder with a razor blade concealed between his cheek and gum (like chewing tobacco).

This is a sometimes mystical eruption of raw violence and self-empowerment that riveted my attention to the screen.  

Rahim, who has done some television work, is putty in the hands of his director in real life.  His character Malik, while being molded in similar amazing fashion by César on screen, solidifies into someone who reveals with a little sly smile during an act of extreme violence that no one is safe around him.

César creates a monster, and the transition is quite extraordinary in any language.  Audiard, through Rahim, majestically reveals the inner-torment and survival instinct it takes to propel a monster to an even scarier level:  intelligence.

Audiard clearly structures his ending as a "to be continued" wink at the audience.

In the case of "A Prophet," I'll look forward to it.  

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