Starring: Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 155 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
He’s not that kind of prophet. Some Marseilles criminals declare him a prophet when he calls out that there are animals on the highway before their car strikes a deer. But, a prophet as proclaiming God’s message, no way. Rather, he is a thorough example of an Italian Renaissance prince as described by Macchiavelli. For Malik el Djebena it was not always thus!
In Jacques Audiard’s bold, graphic and intriguing film, Malik is 19, an orphan who has grown up in juvenile centres and has been arrested for attacking police.
We enter, as an audience does in the tradition of prison films, with Malik, the examination and search, the prison garb, the cell… Once he has been supervised, he is settled into his own cell. We sea meals, showers, the yard and an immediate attack on Malik for his sneakers and to show him who is boss.
What follows is the saga of Malik’s life and growth in prison – and the film runs for two and a half hours – and he takes the first of different and unforeseen turns.
He is cajoled by Cesar, the kingpin of prisoners, head of the Corsican contingent in jail, a strong force who have an antipathy towards the increasing number of Arabs into killing another prisoner or Cesar will have Malik killed. Initially reluctant, he does slash the victim’s throat. Then, in a stylistic flourish, along with the visualising of Malik’s dreams, the man’s ghost appears to Malik periodically, warning him, a counselling presence.
This is the tale of an illiterate youth who uses his wits to learn at prison classes, including economics, who serves the Corsicans but is always listening, finds himself trusted by Cesar to do jobs for him on his day releases but who uses the opportunity to set up his own hash smuggling enterprise, does deals with various rival gangs and finally manipulates crises (and a massacre) that leaves him on top of the world. Can it last? (In fact, a sequel would be interesting.)
Audiard has made some striking and stylish dramas (Sur Mes Levres, The Beat My Heart Skipped). Tahar Rahim as Malik, from young to confident adult, changes physically and psychologically (and immorally) before our eyes. Niels Arestrup as Cesar is a powerful foil to Rahim.
A brutal but effective depiction of the world of crime.
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