Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oscar Nominee: A Prophet

There is one place where racial, ethnic, and religious identity is truly inescapable: prison. However, one French Arab convict’s reluctance to embrace such group-think places him in a profitable but potentially dangerous position in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Un Prophète), the winner of the 2009 Cannes Grand Prix and one of five Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles (trailer here).

Life looks bad for Malik El Djebena. Illiterate with no family or outside support system, he is about to start a six year stretch in a prison dominated by Corsican mobsters. He does not feel comfortable with the Arab gang either, particularly when Reyab, a Muslim inmate, propositions him in the shower. As it happens, Reyab is snitching on the Corsicans, who offer El Djebena a classic gangster bargain—kill Reyab or be killed.

It is not pretty, but El Djebena completes the hit, winning the protection of the Corsican godfather Cesar Luciani in the process. Of course, as an Arab, he will never be fully accepted by the Corsicans. Yet, it is also because of his otherness that Luciani trusts the apprentice gangster. Soon work furloughs are arranged for him to serve as Luciani’s confidential messenger to his associates and the rival Arab mob. However, it also allows El Djebena the opportunity to set up his own hash-running business with a friendly former inmate and to forge his own contacts with the various competing criminal factions. (For a prison movie, it is notable just how much of Prophet takes place on the outside).

Good timing is as crucial for a successful criminal as it is for a musician, and El Djebena’s sense of time proves so unerringly acute it approaches prescience (which explains the film’s somewhat misleading title). Loyalties shift and power ebbs and flows, but El Djebena’s position gives him a clear perspective and his instincts tell him when to capitalize.

Despite its Cannes and Oscar credentials, Prophet is far more of a gritty gangster film than rarified art cinema (but that is meant as a recommendation). Though questions of ethnicity are of central importance to the film, they are not addressed polemically. Indeed, Prophet is not at all an issue film, which makes its voluminous critical accolades a bit surprising. Instead, it is a tough, unsentimental crime drama that is by and large quite naturalistic, save for the occasional appearance of Reyab’s ghost that apparently haunts his assassin (or at least his thoughts).

In a breakout performance as the ambitious El Djebena, Tahar Rahim expresses all the intensity and fierceness missing from recent American gangster films. Creased and weathered, Niels Arestrup is an equally chilling presence as the ruthless Luciani. In fact, the entire ensemble cast is quite convincing, with everyone looking appropriately flinty and hardboiled.

Audiard combines the epic sweep of classic mob films with some tough action sequences scrupulously grounded in reality. The result is one of the most accessible foreign films that will play the art-house circuit this year. While The White Ribbon is considered the overwhelming frontrunner for the foreign language Oscar, A Prophet (Un Prophète) is probably running a distant second place. It is a very good movie (far superior to the tiresome Ajami, perhaps the third most widely seen contender) featuring a star-making turn by Rahim. It opens Friday (2/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.