Friday, April 23, 2010

Movie Review: Un Prophete

Some movies are the best thing ever while you're in the process of watching them. You sit there in the theater, transfixed by the work, completely caught up in the moment and thrilled that you're privileged enough to watch such a work of art. Then, upon reflection a few days (or even hours) later, you're struck with an empty feeling inside. Despite your initial thoughts after the movie, you realize that it wasn't actually that good. All you're left with is a lingering sense of disappointment, and the notion that you have somehow been tricked.

Sometimes, however, you're lucky and the opposite occurs. A movie may seem like a purely mediocre effort while you're watching it. But over the next few days, something grows on you, and looking back you realize that the film was far better than you initially thought. This happens far more rarely than the initial scenario, but it's always very satisfying.

The latter is how I feel about the French film Un prophete (A Prophet, both those who have problems with cognates). Un prophete was one of the Academy nominees for Best Foreign Film this year, but because of those quirky studio and their wacky distribution practices, it is only now beginning to trickle out into theaters. It's also won a bunch of French film prizes you've never heard of.

I was not particularly impressed when I watched the movie a few weeks ago. But since then, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

Un prophete centers around a young man named Malik, a Frenchman of Arab descent. At the beginning of the movie, we see him being checked into prison for a six year term. He has been charged with assaulting a police officer - a charge which remains ambiguous, as the audience never learns whether or not he was guilty. Immediately, Malik is confronted with the harsh realities of the prison, where Corsican mafiosos are pitted against the Muslim prisoners. Not a Corsican and not a Muslim, Malik finds himself caught in the middle. The movie chronicles his journey as he navigates his way through prison politics and conflicts.

The film does an amazing job of pulling the audience into the story very quickly. Malik is accosted by Cesar, the leader of the Corsican gangsters, who has many of the prison guards under his thumb. Cesar threatens to have Malik killed unless Malik manages to kill a Muslim prisoner who might testify against one of Cesar's men. The young, terrified Cesar is forced to enter the Muslim's cell, on the pretense of providing oral sex, with a bare blade concealed in his mouth.

I won't ruin what happens, but the ensuing incident is one of many well-crafted, suspenseful scenes in the film. The movie is violent, but not the explicit American violence that we are used to. One scene in which Malik practices removing the blade from his mouth is difficult to watch, both from our mounting dread of what is to follow, and the casual manner that Malik mutilates his mouth as he learns to maneuver the knife with his tongue. But this, and other violent scenes in the movie, are that much more unbearable because of their casual demeanor. Unlike many American films, Un prophete does not push the violence in the audience's faces. It is treated as nothing special, which makes it all the more appalling.

As the film progresses, the audience gets to watch Malik slowly grow up. But this isn't a moralistic bildungsroman - there are no lessons to be learned within the gang system of French prisons. But Malik does develop an identity, and if the movie does not have an explicit moral, neither is it preaching immorality. Rather, Malik grows through both the good (learning to read) and the bad (starting his own criminal operation).

This amoral coming-of-age tale perhaps wouldn't work if the actor portraying Malik - Tahar Rahim - weren't so talented, and director Jacques Audiard weren't so good at letting the scenes speak for themselves. Malik has few close friends, and rarely confides his plans. Though he occupies nearly every scene of this two and a half hour movie, the audience is still forced to guess at his motives. Malik hides a lot behind his eyes, and grows in surprising ways. For better or for worse, a life of crime and the prison system have turned him into a distrustful, wary man. There's no cheesy exposition through dialogue - Malik merely does what he does, and the audience is forced to think about his choices and their consequences without the benefit of having a character explain every action. The only redemption offered to the character is ambiguous at best.

But while Rahim plays up the cautious elements of Malik, at other times he plays the character as beautifully fragile. In one scene that I can't stop thinking about, Malik leaves prison on a day pass and ends up at the beach. He has never been to the beach before, and simply stands on the shore staring at the waves. He returns to prison in the evening; passing through the metal detector, sand pours out of his shoes. The look that Malik gives these sandy shoes is full of heartbreak and longing and confusion and unease all at once, and it is a testament to actor, director and screenwriter that one simple glance can convey so much and be so effective in terms of telling a story.

As I stated earlier, I wasn't thrilled with Un prophete while watching it. I enjoyed the individual scenes (like the sand in the shoes), but I wasn't exactly taken with how these scenes were all stitched together. But I think my initial dissatisfaction came from expecting something different. I was expecting emotional catharsis at the end of the film, but Un prophete offers none of that. Instead, the action moves and builds slowly, and just as slowly concludes and ebbs away.

This was initially unsettling. We've been conditioned to expect that One Moment in movies where the character learns something, where everything changes, where someone learns to see the world in a different way. But life is not like that, and Un prophete knows this. In real life, people slowly change over time, their identities slowly shifting, their aspirations slowly unfolding. Real life contains very few instantaneous life-changing events. If Un Prophete offers no emotional catharsis, it is perhaps because the movie is 150 minutes of catharsis. Malik is a very different person by the end of the film, but the shift so subtle, the growth so gradual, that one hardly recognizes it while it is happening. It certainly can't be traced to a single scene, but life is like that. How many of us can trace one specific event that defines who we are?

After I viewed the film, I thought it was all right, with a few interesting scenes, but rather forgettable. I thought the movie would be gone from my mind within twenty-four hours. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the film worked better as a cohesive unit than I had first realized. It's hardly the traditional Hollywood narrative, but that ends up working in its favor. The fact that the film has lingered in my mind is a testament to its insidious emotional weight.

Un prophete is not a perfect movie - it's still a little too long, and the mystical theme of it's title is perhaps hinted at a bit too obliquely. But it is certainly something different, and it provided me with unexpected food for thought over the past couple of weeks.

To tell you the truth, I'm looking forward to seeing it again. Let's just hope it's still as good as I've convinced myself.

Initial Congo Rating: 55 Congos
Revised Congo Rating: 80 Congos