CINEMA: Fulsome Prison Blues

a-prophet-un-prophete-movie-poster.jpgA PROPHET (2009, directed by Jacques Audiard, 155 minutes, France)

RED RIDING:1974 (2009, directed by Julian Jarrold, 102 minutes, U.K.)

RED RIDING: 1980 (2009, directed by James Marsh, 93 minutes, U.K.)

RED RIDING: 1983 (2009, directed by Anand Tucker, 100 minutes, U.K.)


When we first meet Malik, the lead character in Jacques Audiard riveting new crime drama A Prophet, it does not seem like he could possibly be the titular character. Questioned upon entering prison for assaulting a policemen, the 19- year-old Malik professes no religion. In fact he seems like a vulnerable blank slate; he has no family, no past and no beliefs; the only sign of a back story are the deep scars across his back. Sporting the type of peach fuzz they used to call a “hair-stache” in my high school, this deer-in-the-headlights looks like he’s a just scene or two away from becoming the victim of some grisly cell block crime.

Yet this “rise of a criminal mastermind” story is also a coming-of-age tale, as Malik becomes not only gifted student of the prison’s criminal underworld but he is his own man as well in his three years behind bars. Starting off as the peon houseboy for the Corsican gang that runs the prison, Malik soon graduates to being the go-between between the Corsican boss César (an excellent performance by the gray and portly Niels Arestrup) and the burgeoning Muslim population.  When he starts running his own drug business, it is only a matter of time before Malik and César bump heads.

This may read like typical crime film fare, and while A Prophet has its share of expected showdowns the film both satisfies and transcends its genre setting.  Front and center is the enthralling performance of Tahar Rahim as Malik. At first glance he is so meek and inward-drawn there does not seem to be much to him.  Although he learns to read while in prison, he never turns into a verbal character. Rahim embodies the character completely, though, and without words he begins to make you feel the soulfulness of this criminal finding his feet in the world. It reminded me of Sean Penn’s early, near-silent inmate in the youth prison flick Bad Boys.

And while the setting gives us a sense of hyper-realism, director Audiard occasionally illuminates Malik’s inner world by portraying the ghosts and illusions that haunt him in his cell.  Audiard is also brilliant in focusing on the little details of the criminal life.  In one unforgettable scene he shows Malik practicing the murder he has been forced into, spitting blood as he masters the art of hiding a razor blade in his mouth, then catching it in his teeth as he lunges for the kill.  All prison films hinge on the same basic conflicts but again A Prophet finds ways to surprise us, by following Malik as his territory becomes larger with his 12-hour furlough releases that allow him to both import drugs and imagine a world outside the prison’s walls.

Its a real cinematic pleasure discovering that this character who seemed destined to be gobbled up by the prison’s ugliness becomes so fully-dimensional that his travails easily warrant the film’s two and a half hour length.  Two-thirds of the way through the film a Muslim crime boss asks Malik if he’s a prophet because his position gives him the ear of all racial and national factions in the prison. One can just as easily admire how this story’s universality has made it a must-see for crime fans world-wide.

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Stretching its story over three feature-length films, Red Riding, based on a quartet of novels by David Peace, makes somewhat less of an impression.  The red-riding.jpgfilm’s grandiose conception — having three directors direct three features on three filmmaking mediums (16mm film , 35 mm film  and high-definition video respectively) — leads one to believe we’re in store for some Kie?lowski-type “major statement” here.  Partially, this is a trick of marketing: Red Riding began its life as a mini-series broadcast on Channel Four, the British TV station.  Any auteurist touches from the directors are subservient to the producer’s grand design, much as the name directors who worked on The Sopranos left little of their own mark.  What we’re really getting is high quality British television in a theatrical setting, which at its best is nothing to sneeze at, although Red Riding only intermittently achieves the power of a good episode of Cracker.

Set in the non-urbane Northern England city of Yorkshire, the three films fictionalize events around the real case of the “Yorkshire Ripper,” who killed 13 woman between 1975 and 1980. It is not the crimes themselves that dominate the story but their effect on a reporter, investigator and solicitor who examine the evidence.  At times even the crimes fall into the periphery as the corruption that has set in on Yorkshire like a damp rot gives the impression that such crimes are just a symptom of a world adrift without a moral compass. In the opening film, 1974, an over-eager young reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield, recently spotted in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) steps on toes of the powers-that-be while trying to solve the case himself.  Turns out a developer who plans one of the first mega shopping malls might be involved, and Eddie and he both share a lover in the sexy mourning mother of one of the young dead.  This first chapter shares some of the incautious romanticism of Eddie himself, with dreamy pop montages set to the vintage 70’s soul Eddie favors.  It all blows up spectacularly in the end, leading to the second chapter six years later.

Directed by James Marsh (who has done excellent original work in both the Gael Garcia Bernal vehicle The King and the highwire documentary Man On a String), the trilogy reaches its high-point with 1980.  Paddy Considine (visible in The Bourne Ultimatum) is inspector Peter Hunter, a self-righteous inspector brought in by higher-ups as extra artillery to solve the still unsolved Ripper murders.  Hunter makes no bones about his belief that the local police have botched the job, leading the Yorkshire force to cooperate with him as little as possible.  Is that because they want the glory of solving it themselves or are men on the force somehow involved?  Personally, I might enjoy the second episode the most because the wall-to-wall regional accents in parts one and three make it undeniably difficult in stretches to suss out just what the characters are saying.  But Considine (resembling a young John Doe from the band X) is completely captivating as the cop bent on being the man who cracks the case, while at the same time he is distracted by a colleague he once compromised his own morals with by having an affair.  If you’re not willing to commit yourself to the entire trilogy, this section stands fine by itself and is gripping enough to give a strong recommendation.

By the third section, 1983, the conspiracy has become so convoluted we’re treated to endless flashbacks and a story that so seedy and corrupt it stretches credulity.  Child kidnappings and murders are so perverse they are in the great majority carried out by compulsive loners.  That Yorkshire is such a forsaken place (telegraphed frequently by the looming nuclear towers hovering in the horizon) that the pillars of society join together to take part in them is a grisly truth more likely created in a writer’s mind.  One should be game to stare dark truths in the eye, but dark fantasies posing as hard truths are another story altogether.

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