Saturday, 13 February 2010

Cinema: Review - 'A Prophet'

'A Prophet'

Being an aficionado of both the jail house flick and the mobster movie, 'A Prophet' was always likely to appeal to me and my kind. Hotly tipped for best foreign language film (it is in colloquial French, Corsican and Arabic; not many will be able to understand it all without substitles) at this year's Oscars, it really ought to feature in the best movie shortlist - in my world, it would win it. That doesn't mean it's an easy watch, but although the first two-thirds of the movie is wholly contained within a piss-stained prison in which any authority beyond that of the inmates' own order is near-invisible and only in the final third do we make occasional forays into the outside world, and then only in the cause of crime, there is much to learn about life here.

Its plot line and setting may seem to have most in common with some of the classics of seventies Hollywood - 'The Godfather' series, 'Papillon', 'Serpico', 'Midnight Express' - but its more obvious and telling antecedents are European and contemporary, in particular 'Gomorra', a Neapolitan mob movie that was near the top of my 2008 list. Whereas American crime movies can never resist glamour, 'Gomorra' majored on grime. It emphasised the extent to which organised crime touches on ordinary lives, especially of the poor and dispossessed who have no more choice than to cooperate with its power structures than they do with those of the state. So close to the truth was it, its writer Roberto Saviano has been living under threat of death ever since.

Like 'Gomorra', 'A Prophet' is probably best viewed as a coming-of-age movie, Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena being banged up for six years at the age of nineteen for unspecified crimes against a police officer he may or may not have been guilty of, terrified and alone. Fitting in with neither the Corsican mob who rule by influence, threat and occasional force nor the North Africans with whom he shares a heritage but not a faith, Malik makes his way by  doing a deal with the devil early on, but never taking his side. In the end, he works his outsider status to his advantage, building his own power base through opportunism rather than loyalty. Likewise, his introverted and enigmatic nature makes him the ideal observer - initially as a spy for others, ultimately on missions of his own.

If the prospect of spending over two hours seeing a closed and macho world from the point-of-view of an initially naive but ultimately smart and ruthless criminal - murderer, assassin, drug dealer - who learns how to survive and ultimately prosper in jail has no appeal, you might want to stop reading now. But deep down this is a film about growing up, getting an education and forging an identity when the odds are stacked against you, a classic formula for fiction and film. And there is never a moment when you doubt the reality of the milieu, however alien it may be to you. Prison becomes a place of freedom, without ties or responsibilities, in which it is possible to reinvent yourself. Society inside the jail is corrupt, but by its conclusion you're in no doubt that it is a microcosm of the outside world that runs to similar rules, the ultimate authority being force, not the law that in some cases gives it legitimacy.

Innocent and yet able to exploit the weaknesses of the guilty, a born survivor who starts out as underdog but becomes topdog on his own terms, using his fear and always choosing well between fight and flight, our antihero is as lonely as Hamlet and has visions of his own, newcomer Tahar Rahim's performance is compelling. Niels Arestrup is superb in the Lear-like supporting role as the king of the mob whose power is incrementally stripped off him. As heavy on the conventions of its genre as 'A Prophet' may appear to be from this summary of theme and plot, it ultimately transcends the cliches of the prison drama without denying their banal veracity. It is compulsive - and should be compulsory - viewing.

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