French film shows how far we have to go

“The idea is to learn something in here for when you get out,” Reyeb tells Malik, the main character in A Prophet — a film about a young thug who learns how to develop his own criminal network while incarcerated in a maximum security prison.

Not only was the French film nominated for best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards, but it is also a monumental example of technically perfect filmmaking.

Like Malik, who has much to learn if he wishes to survive to see his sentence through, many American directors still have just as much to learn if they ever hope to compete with the standard of excellence set by French cinema.

The film centers on Malik (portrayed with incredible grace by Tahar Rahim), a young Arab who is violently initiated into the ruthless Corsican mob that runs the prison. The focus of the 155-minute masterpiece is Malik’s observation and eventual take over of the powerful criminal unit headed up by César Luciani (flawlessly embodied by veteran French actor Niels Arestrup).

A Prophet might seem like an ordinary prison movie at first, but it quickly and clearly reveals itself to be one of the best films currently playing in theaters. And it’s because of the brutal yet mesmerizing filmmaking that went into its production — a style that has been absent in most American films since the 1970s — that the film stands apart.

Director Jacques Audiard’s style is enhanced by stellar performances and a script so smart, it literally redefines the abilities and potential of contemporary cinema.

Along with its Oscar nomination, the film also won the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival in addition to taking home nine César awards — the French equivalent of the Oscars.

But such prominence is nothing new for Audiard, whose previous film, 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, expressed the same style and received the same adoration.

Like A Prophet, Audiard’s earlier film predominantly featured characters surrounded by crime and violence. This is typified by its protagonist Thomas, a young aspiring pianist whose father (also portrayed by Arestrup) just so happens to be a mobster with serious problems.

Francophile · Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, the main character in Jacques Audiard’s award-winning film A Prophet. - Photo courtesy of Chic Films

The film also earned Audiard César awards for best film and director, as well as a supporting actor award for Arestrup. Like A Prophet, it deserved everything it received, and then some.

All of this praise stems directly from Audiard’s unique filmmaking style. The notion of innocence being eclipsed by crime is prevalent in his work. Audiard’s style is to prolong intensity enough to curdle viewers’ blood, at which point all that built-up intensity explodes with shocking consequences.

His films generally leave audiences thinking long after they’ve left the theater.

Audiard’s skill is his ability to pack so much into a confined space — like a prison — and then ignite the whole thing. But his real charm comes from his direction and the film’s ability to take its time and set up every minuscule detail for the resultant explosion to unfold just right.

Audiard’s intensity makes a full-force appearance in full force in a very simple scene in A Prophet in which a few glances across the prison yard and a fist into someone’s stomach are the only clues to confirm that Malik has been studying extensively to become a cunning and ruthless gangster.

Audiard’s films are slow at first. In truth, there isn’t gratuitous action in either movie — rather, the audience becomes engulfed in the process, such as Malik’s developing education.

He is depicted in transition, not as an outright gangster. The audience witnesses the process of his conditioning, which is found both on and off screen.

A Prophet’s screenplay is enormously intricate; its creation is the result of precise detailing. So much happens in the film that, initially, much of the plot seems irrelevant, but every detail comes back for the film’s dramatic conclusion.

The script, combined with spot-on direction and fierce performances, showcases Audiard and his unconventional style as one of the  truly premier styles of filmmaking in cinema today.

Recent American cinema, particularly crime films, never receive this much attention. There are, of course, notable exceptions — Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers and others — but the fact is most American crime flicks are sloppy and require very little effort on the audience’s part. These barriers stop American cinema from becoming as rich and as powerful as it could be.

American directors must learn to appreciate the kind of dedication required from both the production crew and the audience in order to perfect cinema, and for this they can look at A Prophet and its director, along with hundreds of other French films that perceive this dedication as necessity, not as novelty.

Christopher Byars is a senior majoring in English (creative writing). His column, “Cinerama,” runs Fridays.

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