Film: Jacques Audiard: A Prophet (2009)

The epic gangster film is by no means a new genre; recent entries like City of God (2002) and Gomorra (2008) infused it with a sort of pop hipness that was never anything less than keeping with the wannabe grandeur of the punk kids stretching their limits. These films flaunt their handheld bravura in a vibrant avalanche of violence and disorder, and probably owe more, stylistically, to a Spike Lee joint, an Amélie (2001), or a La haine (1995) than to the two films Coppola made that defined the modern form. The word that comes to mind is pastiche: an international, multilingual plot confection of rigorously woven story threads, a hip hop soundtrack, and endless references to the likes of Tony Montana. A Prophet falls neatly into the category, and this isn’t exactly a criticism. These are pretty good films, valuing a sort of gangland palace intrigue over complex thematic development, but so what? If Audiard’s film owes a certain stylistic debt to “The Wire” or Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), there are certainly far worse points of departure for a film so determined to push its characters to their respective fates.

The danger in these films is that their overt style might obliterate any depth they may be reaching for; a French film featuring Corsican and Arabic, and the occasional de rigeur American hip hop track, raises hairy red flags of pomp over meaning. And the “We Are the World” overtones of Babel or Slumdog Millionaireladen with blaring ethnic scores, a pop star or two (or one in the apparent making), and a buffed sheen for its own sake – are disingenuous at best, and offensively naive at worst, signifying essentially the same righteous, simplistic perspective that got us into, but frustratingly not out of, Helmand province or Sadr City. But Gomorra, and now A Prophet, show gratifyingly different interests. Audiard may be too in love with the pastiche, but he’s absolutely set on the Wagnerian scope and tenor of his film, and once you’re settled into it, it is mesmerizing.

It took me a while to find my rhythm in the film, and while I dig Audiard’s meticulously circuitous route, I think he shoots himself in the foot a bit by not providing his lead – a young French-Arab thrown in prison for unspecified crimes – with a back story. Normally I think back stories are vastly overrated, but in this case, we’re meant to accept Malik as a kid with no sense of who he is when he arrives, but this feels wrong to me in some abstract way, more a plot device than a character trait (particularly in a film that continues to build, inexorably, on character traits). Malik barely registers onscreen in the opening scenes, showing up beaten and cowed. It’s only when he’s offered hash in exchange for a blowjob in the shower that he shows his first sign of a personality, in a predictable expression of mortified outrage. I don’t argue that a teenager’s imprisonment doesn’t muffle him across the board, at least for a while, but nowhere in the film’s 2 1/2 hours do we get a sense of who Malik was before, or how that shapes who he becomes while inside.

Maybe that’s Audiard’s point. Malik’s basically a cypher in the first hour, a weakling conscribed to murder for the Corsican inmate mob that runs the show. The victim is the man who offered the hash, a fellow Arab with bleached blond hair who attracts the attention of the gang and its draconian ringleader, César, before he even gets in the gate. His offense, like everyone’s, remains obscured; Audiard isn’t interested in the past – it just got us here, that’s all. César presents his cypher with a blunt and extraordinarily clear offer: kill the Arab, and we won’t kill you. Thus Malik begins to train, hiding a razor in his cheek and miming fellatio on a Corsican stand-in. Malik’s moral objections don’t stand long in his way – although we’re lead to understand he hardly got his six years for murder – and the killing, messy and awkward, is numbingly visceral. It’s clear that to Audiard we are little more, in the end, than heavy sacks of blood and tissue. César seems to agree, and quickly makes Malik his pet Arab errand boy.

What follows is a meticulous delineation of Malik’s time in prison, his influences and his gradual crawl up the Corsican food chain toward César’s throne at the top, in an endless series of stunningly fluid sequences. A Prophet should feel much, much longer than it is; it never takes a moment to circle back on itself, to build on an idea longer than it takes to move on to the next one. Audiard has a jokester’s sense of timing, stacking the deck firmly against his cypher to see how long it takes him to make a man out of himself (in French prison terms, of course), and he punctuates his setpieces – the Arab’s murder, Malik’s day pass trips outside the prison on brutally exposed odd jobs for César, the various power shake-ups within the prison walls – with a hammy bravado. For every haunting shot of Malik’s Arab kill spinning in Sufi ecstasy, his throat slit and bloodless, there’s a throwaway joke between them; Audiard lacks a certain conviction to take his own audacity seriously.

Look, I like A Prophet very much. It’s tight, and achieves what it sets out to do. Audiard’s writing and direction are sort of wonderful, and he’s cast the film with magnificently present actors, men with articulate stares who can turn on a dime into bestial scrappers. If I shuffle at the sentencing, it’s because Gomorra had a self-conscious quality, aware of how big it was going to get and letting a perverse sense of catastrophic dread creep into the works – as do The Godfathers, and Scarface, and Goodfellas. For all his flourishes, nothing about director Matteo Garrone’s camerawork or editing feels superfluous – their swoop and punch lend exactly the right vertiginous shock across the film’s highs and lows. Audiard behaves a little like a kid with a ton of great ideas who can’t wait to drop them all into his first feature (this is his sixth): the perfect track, the fantastically sobering executions, the visual playfulness. He handles them all with deft precision, but for all the pretenses of religious overtones (the title comes up in a scene that feels tacked on, excessive), he doesn’t seem quite aware of the dimensions his gangster saga might have enjoyed if it had looked inward at itself. I don’t know, I suppose it takes a certain unseemly grandiloquence to present a lot of great storytelling without letting the hokey self-awareness take over; it’s a quality that makes Amélie feel both vibrant and strangely unmoored, adrift in its own abandon. These films can be extraordinary fun, but they feel to me like the friend you can’t quite get a handle on: the one who tells great stories, makes you laugh and stare with dropped jaw in equal measure, but never says anything you think about later.

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