For some reason, I can happily sit through six hours of a Wagner opera, but in the cinema, anything over 90 minutes tends to become unbearable. It takes something special to make me want to go to a film that lasts over two-and-a-half hours.
Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète, however, comes with almost universal plaudits. It was strongly tipped to win the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, and, although in the end it was pipped to the post by Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, it still won the Grand Prix (in effect, the runner’s-up award).
The movie concerns the six years spent in prison by a young Arab man named Malik (played by newcomer Tahar Rahim). This illiterate character starts out as a blank canvas, seeming to have no past or connections, no beliefs or opinions. But he very soon comes into contact with and remains answerable to a terrifying Corsican crime lord called César (played by Niels Arestrup, who was also in Audiard’s previous film, the highly regarded The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and is forced to murder another prisoner who is about to be released and represents a danger to César’s outside criminal interests. As the film progresses, Malik (clearly haunted by the murder he has committed) begins to educate himself and gradually rediscovers his origins and identity.
Audiard’s direction shows such confidence and poise that very quickly one becomes gripped by his muscular depiction of prison life (the advisors and extras on the film were themselves former prisoners). Indeed, when Malik is allowed to leave prison for a day, it is difficult not to exult in his sense of liberation.
My major quibble with the film is the way, as the film’s title suggests, the central character becomes a figure of almost religious significance. We are made to empathize with him even though he is actively involved in the most violent attacks and murders (the film’s gore score is very high).
The movie is worth seeing for Tahar Rahim’s performance alone. He is rarely off the screen and at all times is utterly believable, an extraordinary achievement for a newcomer. Surely we will see a lot more of him in future films.Favorite