French writer-director Jacques Audiard's new film, UN PROPHET, is a devastatingly good film - even more searing than the already impressive 2005 flick THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED. It's the kind of film that has you on the edge of your seat, wincing with unease throughout, and yet leaves you exhilarated and re-energised in your belief of what cinema, at its best, can be capable of.
The movie opens with a teenage kid being admitted to prison. Malik El Djebena is a zero. He has no politics, no religion, no friends, no ambition and no clue. Within ten minutes of the two and a half hour run-time his fate is sealed. The Corsican chief Cesar has demanded that Malik kill the Arab chief Ryad, or be killed himself. The means by which the murder has to be committed, and Malik's practising it, is one of the most insanely horrific scenes in recent cinema history. Half an hour into the run-time and Malik has established his modus vivendi, protected by the Corsicans, educating himself, working up his own network. He's still an outsider: too Corsican for the Arabs and too Arab for the Corsicans, but he is on the ascendancy. Once again, while he shows some initiative, this is basically success by default. When Sarkozy's new policy sends Cesar's goons back home, Cesar has no choice but to depend on Malik, and to exploit his day-release passes. During this middle-section, the movie seems to drift a little. There are excursions and petty deal-making - it all seems rather banal. But this is, in fact, the genius of the film's structure. Because it comes almost as a surprise that, inch by inch, Malik is now the man in control - and Cesar just a pathetic, lonely old man.
I shan't say more because I feel that UN PROPHET is a movie that works best when you know as little about it as possible. Suffice to say that I think this is a movie that is a worthy contender for Haneke's DAS WEISSE BAND as the foreign-language film of the year. Moreover, Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestup, as Malik and Cesar respectively, deliver powerful and nuanced performances worthy of praise in their own right.
Not to be missed.
UN PROPHET played Cannes, Telluride and London 2009 and Sundance 2010. It opened last year in Belgium, France, Russia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Greece and Portugal. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in February in the Netherlands, the USA, Argenina and Spain. It opens in March in Germany, Israel, Taiwan, and Finland. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.