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Prophet, A (Blu-ray Review)

16 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
Box Office $2.1 million
$27.96 DVD, $38.96 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.
Stars Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif.

When the evidence runs a consistently intriguing 2 hours 35 minutes despite taking place predominantly indoors amid oppressively grubby settings, there can’t be much doubt about the degree of vitality left in the prison picture, whose heft as a screen genre goes back to the earliest days of the talkies. France’s recent nominee for the foreign-language Oscar is definitely as good as Peruvian winner The Secret in Their Eyes and German nominee The White Ribbon (I haven’t seen the other two yet, but Kino is bringing out Israel’s Ajami Aug. 24).

A Prophet’s central Malik El Djebena character (a French-born Arab played by Tahar Rahim) doesn’t exactly rise to the top of his insular society the way, say, Michael Corleone does in his; Malik’s is more a case of successfully surviving and even thriving (a little) against massive odds as others pull the strings. On the other hand, he doesn’t lose his soul in the process, despite being a player in some notably odious circumstances.

Incarcerated in his late teens for a crime he denies (slugging a cop), Malik can’t read and occasionally betrays a mildly sweet-faced innocence that lasts him till the end. But the French prison that is his new home is also a no-thank-you hornet’s nest of factionalism. The joint’s resident crime boss and briber of guards is battle-weary Corsican Cesar (Neils Arestrup, unforgettable) whose hitherto cushy set-up is now threatened by Arab-Muslim rivals, including one prisoner who’s about to testify against the more established mob. Cesar begins to think that Malik (who eschews religious ties) would make a workable in-house hit man and recruits him — though, as it turns out, Malik comes to like his victim during their brief encounter.

This crucial early scene is bloody enough — though, for my money, the prep is even tougher to take. This is when Malik rolls a razor blade around in his mouth for concealment purposes (now, there’s a way to learn the ventriloquist arts) with the expected result — until he finds just the right place inside his check to conceal it. Pulling off his assignment earns Cesar-mandated protection for Malik (to say nothing of increased stature), but it comes with a price. From now on — and despite his own evolving outside business dealings plus a linguistic flair for playing both prison factions against the other — he’s now pretty well consigned to being Cesar’s gofer and errand boy. These even come to include daylong trips out of the prison that are supposed to be for legal work release, but aren’t.

The result isn’t exactly like Montgomery Clift eventually turning against John Wayne in Red River because the two aren’t that emotionally close in the first place. But the relationship inevitably has a father-son dimension, and their final confrontation (with the dynamic shifted some) has dramatic power on the two levels that most matter: professional and personal.

Director Jacques Audiard used actor Arestrup on his previous picture The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which was a well-received riff on James Toback’s 1978 Fingers (a key movie in the screen evolution of Harvey Keitel). But I also remember the actor decked out in a tux as a Hungarian symphonic conductor opposite Glenn Close in 1991’s Meeting Venus — a movie I’d now be curious to see again were it available on DVD. He definitely isn’t tux material in Audiard’s film, though his character is skimming off so much out of the prison budget that you have to believe that cost would be no issue.

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