Imprisoned with ’A Prophet’

A French drama about a jailed Arab emerges as an early Cannes favorite

So much for feel-good movies. The soft, sensual vibes of Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock already seem like a distant mirage, the competition in Cannes is yanked back to the extreme sport of brutalizing us with art. Yesterday morning we saw A Prophet, a visceral prison movie from French director Jacques Audiard, and it has emerged as an early favorite among critics. It’s about an illiterate 19-year-old Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim) who has landed a six-year jail term without knowing what he’s done wrong. He falls prey to the prison’s ruling Corsican mafia, who initiate him by forcing him to kill inmate then make him their Arab slave. And as we track his incarcerated coming-of-age, he learns to survive by his wits, and inevitably prevail.

From the boy’s gruesome initiation,—in which a fountain of blood arcs from neck of a man he kills with a razor blade hidden in his mouth—I had trouble warming to the film. A matter of taste. Though I can’t dispute that A Prophet is a strong piece of work; it’s this year’s answer to Gomorrah. And Rahim’s performance is superb. But prison movies seem too easy. Like submarine movies, they exploit the claustrophobia of a captive audience. Which I guess is why they tend to be long This one is two-and-a-half hours. The idea, I suppose, is that by the time you leave the cinema, you feel you’ve served hard time, and in this case you’ve also tested intelligence in an attempt to keep up with the Byzantine plot.

There’s a scene in the final act where Malik is on day parole, doing Mafia business, and pays a quick visit to a Mediterranean beach. Dazzled by the sun and waves, he lets the sand sift through his fingers. At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the darkness and was blinded by the noonday sun, I squinted out over that same Mediterranean, and began to appreciate what I’d just seen. And although it wasn’t much fun at the time, it sits well. You learn things in prison.

No one, however, makes you suffer for your art quite like Lars Von Trier, whose new movie I just saw a couple of hours ago. More on that in a few minutes . . .