Is 'A Prophet' France's answer to 'The Godfather'?
Smart prison flick ‘A Prophet’ is set to win awards and hearts as one of 2010’s most popular French movies with British filmgoers. Cath Clarke speaks to its celebrated – and stylish – director Jacques Audiard.
In the end, Audiard had to make do with Cannes’s second prize, the Grand Prix. As for murdering that informant, the Corsicans arrange for Malik to be alone with him. It’s gut-punch viewing: a brutal bear struggle as Malik tries to kill a man who won’t die – with a razor blade in a six-by-eight cell. Audiard felt sick before filming. ‘I’m ill at ease with violence.’ After a pause, he concludes: ‘I would find it bizarre to make violence look good.’ If he didn’t look so earnest, Audiard’s squeamishness might seem incongruous. This from a man dressed like an extra from a bar-room scene in a Jean-Pierre Melville film – a reporter with a taste for Mickey Spillane gangsters? Wearing a cravat, a trademark trilby on the table near him, he keeps his sunglasses on as we talk.
‘A Prophet’ is the story of a little guy who becomes a big guy – more genre fodder for you. When Malik walks into prison with a six-year sentence he’s an illiterate, homeless nobody. After his run in with the Corsicans, he starts working for them, small fry stuff, but he’s good. Still, as a French Arab, he will never be fully accepted and begins to expand a power base of his own, gradually feeling a pull towards the prison’s Muslim population. The film can be summarised as a search for identity, says Audiard.
‘I wanted a character who is naive, who builds up his story and identity within his community.’ He describes Malik as an anti-‘Scarface’. ‘With Tony Montana we are on the side of evil, of deep de-socialisation. Malik is the opposite. He wants to be socialised.’ By becoming a thug? ‘Yes, with the means he’s got. But I think that desire is quite virtuous.
’Personal destiny. The possibility of changing your life. But at what cost? These are Audiard’s calling cards, and his films – for all their super-charged edginess – are serious-minded affairs. ‘Cinema is there to see the world. It’s a tool, and you have to ask yourself what you’re using it for,’ he says. In ‘A Prophet’, a chat between two inmates about the changeover from franc to euro places us around 2002, near the beginning of the West’s fear of Muslim radicalisation. An undercurrent, never overplayed, it’s a theme if you want it. The point, says Audiard, was to put a cat among the pigeons, break out of the stereotypes of Arabs in French cinema. ‘The world changes and heroic figures must evolve. In my mind there are new mythologies to build on, new faces.’
New face Rahim’s performance as Malik will be the making of him. His taut scenes with the Corsican godfather, César, are some of film’s most powerful. César is played by Niels Arestrup, who was the father in ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ – lasciviously flabby and wrecked by excess in that film. In ‘A Prophet’ he’s a caged lion: all unpredictability and atrophied muscles. Father-son relationships are another Audiard preoccupation, though he says the dynamic here is more master-slave. ‘César shows no paternal tenderness at all.’ Audiard is a fine director of actors: Mathieu Kassovitz in his two early films; Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos in ‘Read My Lips’; Romain Duris in ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’. Just don’t ask about his method. ‘It’s a question that embarrasses me. I don’t know what my method is…’
Audiard has made only five films to date, very few for a director of 57. It’s a fact that might go unnoticed but for him mentioning it frequently. The son of filmmaker Michel Audiard, he worked first as an editor then as a scriptwriter. ‘I’m too apprehensive, I write for too long,’ he says, adding that he wants to step up the pace. Every time he films, he feels anxious. ‘We took three years to write this script – too long.’
That perfectionism might play havoc with Audiard’s nerves, but it gives ‘A Prophet’ remarkable authenticity, the pulse of prison life: voyeurism, repetition, short expedient bursts of violence. A jail was created on an industrial estate outside Paris and ex-cons were cast to lend it the right feel. At the end of the interview – and I suspect many others – Audiard leaves open the possibility of a sequel, ‘Godfather’-style. ‘Me too,’ he says when told the film left me desperate to find out what happens to Malik. Would he like to make another one? ‘I’m not sure I would.’ He shrugs. ‘Maybe I’m saying that because I’m still talking about this one.’ Another shrug, he looks around. ‘Later I might feel ready.’
Read our review of ‘A Prophet’' here
Author: Cath Clarke
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