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On Movies: 'The Prophet' offers a glimpse into French underworld

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2010 - Movies in which prisoners hide razor blades in their mouths are nothing new. But "A Prophet" is the first movie I'm aware of that acknowledges the difficulty of carrying a razor blade around in your mouth without cutting the hell out of yourself, particularly if you are called upon to converse. That kind of unwieldy but convincing realism helps make "The Prophet," which was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, well worth your attention.

In this long, brutal, stonily unsentimental French film, the razor blade in question bloodies the mouth of young Malik (Tahar Rahim), who has been sentenced to serve six years in a French prison on assault charges that seem murky at best. The prison is essentially run by a small cadre of Corsican gangsters, who lord it over the so-called "Arabs" -- men of North African descent, like Malik. The boss of the Corsicans, Cesar (old pro Niels Arestrup), decides that Malik, a confused and terrified 19-year-old who cannot read or write, is just the lad to cozy up to an Arab enemy and slash his throat. Cesar even provides the razor blade and gives Malik a choice: kill the Arab or die.

Malik tries to slither between the horns of the dilemma by going to the warden, but that way is blocked, and finally, in a starkly realistic, bloody scene that does nothing to endear us to violence, he kills the Arab, thus presumably saving his own life. From that low point, as long as Malik caters to Cesar's sometimes bullying whims, life in prison becomes more bearable for the young man. Still, the prison scenes are bleak and claustrophobic, principally shot in tight, constricting closeups.

It comes with a great sense of relief, not only to Malik but to the audience, when the young Arab, having served most of his sentence, is granted the first of a series of eight-hour probationary "leaves." The prison door opens and the camera bursts into the open like a freed balloon. Malik goes from being Cesar's servant to being his right-hand man as he finds himself dashing around Paris and Marseilles in a war over the drug trade, hurrying back to the prison in the evening before his leave expires.

Malik becomes increasingly self-assured. His body language becomes more assertive, and it becomes clear that he has a knack for criminality, but Cesar is too racist to see him as a threat. The Corsican keeps telling Malik that Arabs are stupid. Malik keeps his mouth shut, and lets his deeds demonstrate who is smart and who is stupid.

There is never any sense that director Jacques Audiard ("The Beat that My Heart Skipped") wants us to think of Malik as a hero, but it is hard not to have some grudging admiration for him as he figures out how to play a deadly criminal game. In order to survive, prey becomes predator.

“A Prophet” is about several things, including the way that scorned immigrant groups – in this case, the Italians followed by the Corsicans followed by the North Africans – succeed one another in taking over the underworld. A lot of American gangster movies are about the same thing, but "A Prophet" is singularly free of the grand romanticism of movies like "The Godfather."

"A Prophet" is also, in a perverse and ironic kind of way, about that old pop-psych standby, personal growth, or at least about learning how to survive and even prevail in an insane and brutal world. There are no good guys, and so we are forced to choose between bad guys, as we sometimes are, and not just in the movies. In this case, it's hard not to root for the underdog.

There has been some debate on the internet (where else?) about the meaning of the title of "A Prophet," and some have looked for deeper religious truths that aren't there. The title comes directly from a throwaway line near the end of the movie, but I see it as also intended ironically. In the film, Malik becomes a perverse kind of prophet, a man who will lead his lost followers down the path of unrighteousness into the land of theft and murder, wealth and power.

A music note: That rambling rock song in the middle of "A Prophet" that sounds eerily like Bob Dylan 1965 is actually the contemporary Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Cody Turner doing his song "Corner of My Room." And the mournful (and perhaps a bit playful) version of "Mack That Knife" that plays over the final credits is sung by the great West Texas country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Opens Friday, April 2, at the Plaza Frontenac.

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'Stolen'

In an independent movie that had its area premiere last fall at the St. Louis International Film Festival, former St. Louisan Jon Hamm stars as a police detective who is understandably obsessed with the disappearance of his 10-year-old son. Circumstances lead him to look into a 50-year-old case involving a troubled man (Josh Lucas) and a son who also disappeared. The detective probes the connections between the cases and is led painfully to the truth.

"Stolen," directed by Anders Anderson, is a competently filmed, routine neo-film noir, enjoyable if you like the genre, but hardly revelatory. Hamm and Lucas are both good in the two lead roles.

Opens Friday, April 2, at the Plaza Frontenac.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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