PIFF 2010 website
A Prophet (France; dir. Jacques Audiard)
Malik El Djebena is a 19-year-old Arab sent to prison for six years after an altercation with police. Played by Tahar Rahim, the boy is functionally illiterate and as completely alone outside jail as he is in jail. He is an isolated nothing of a character, slow to react or understand, the kind of guy who was made to be a pawn. Which is partially why the Coriscan gang leader César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) picks Malik for a job. A witness for the state (Hichem Yacoubi) is currently being held in the Muslim ward of the prison, and César thinks Malik's heritage will be his passport into the man's cell. He's right, and when Malik kills the witness on César's behalf, it starts the boy on a path that will give him new opportunities and a whole new education in the way things are done.
A Prophet is a staggering 150 minutes of cinema. In terms of narrative, it's a film that never once signals ahead to where it's going to go. Director Jacques Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain have rewritten a screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit and made a film that defies conventional genre classification. In some ways, it's a prison drama; in others, it's a criminal apprenticeship a la Ray Liotta's in GoodFellas. This isn't movie writing with a dogmatic three-act structure or the usual conflict/resolution step-by-step plot set-up. A Prophet is more like a novel, one that has room to grow and follow the natural succession of events, free of any imposed dramatic arc. It's not that Malik doesn't go from being the scared teenager he is at the start of the picture to something entirely different at the finish, it's that there is no way to predict what that something will be. The story of his life is a lot like life: unpredictable.
Audiard has assembled an impressive cast for a A Prophet, but the movie really rests on Tahar Rahim. He is in practically every scene, and you're not likely to see a more complete performance this year. For as good as Rahim is at convincing us that Malik is terminally stupid when the movie begins, he is even better at slowly revealing what is really going on behind those searching eyes. There is never a moment where you can look at the actor's face and not see that something is going on inside his head. The wheels are always turning, he is always watching, and Rahim develops the boy piece by piece. Even when Malik has to get touch or starts showing his cunning, Rahim manages to make him appear vulnerable, so that we as the audience keep underestimating him as much as everyone on screen does.
A Prophet begins with a series of inky images, black frames melting away like ice, giving us glimpses of what is behind the darkness. It's an unobtrusive visual metaphor for the movie. Our vision is limited, but the story is large. Clarity comes at a price, and in this film, it's often an extraordinary outburst of violence. It's violence that has gotten Malik imprisoned, but it's also violence that first begins to shed light on what he can be. It's the movie's central irony: the man he kills is the one who teaches him the most. He is Malik's prophet, showing him the way, and it's Malik who shows the rest of us.
A Prophet plays on 2/13 and 2/15.
Fish Tank (Great Britain, dir. Andrea Arnold)
It was only some time after I had finished watching Fish Tank that I started to realize that this movie is like a British version of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. It didn't occur to me during the screening because the two movies couldn't be more stylistically different, nor could they be farther apart in terms of artistic success. Both films are about young women living in poverty who dream about doing something flashy with their lives, but who must battle a lack of education, an uncaring mother, and the inappropriate advances of older men before they'll ever get a chance. Where Precious is manipulative and aesthetically cheap, however, Fish Tank is smart, emotionally honest, and technically restrained.
Fish Tank is the second film of writer/director Andrea Arnold, who previously made the stark crime drama Red Road. For her sophomore outing, she employs a similar digital, Neorealist style. Shooting on location with no musical score, she follows her main character Mia, played by a wonderfully effective first-timer named Katie Jarvis, through her day-to-day routine in an Essex housing project. She gets in fights, practices her dance moves, and wanders aimless and alone through the streets. When her mother (Kierston Wareing) brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), Mia is attracted to him sexually, but also touched by the kindness and interest he shows her. He'll encourage Mia to pursue dancing and to open up, but when he moves into the apartment, Mia's attraction reaches a boil.
The final portion of the film is devoted to how Mia deals with this new attention and the fallout it causes. It's a strange, volatile ride. Her immaturity becomes more apparent with each irrational decision. Consequences don't seem to enter into the girl's mind before she does anything. Katie Jarvis is utterly convincing as the sullen teen whose rage seethes just below the surface. Fassbender is also very good, charming the audience into hoping he's not too good to be true. I really, really wanted to like him. He's a little like Peter Sarsgaard's character in An Education, except he's not Peter Sarsgaard, so it's not a foregone conclusion that he's creepy.
Most of Fish Tank is appropriately underplayed. Andrea Arnold doesn't rely on her characters to explain what is going on, she is far too intent on showing us through actions and reaction. (Something Lee Daniels, the director of Precious, is by all evidence incapable of.) Her camera practically stalks Mia, often having to run to keep up with her. Fish Tank is essentially a point of view film, Katie Jarvis is in every scene. The only time Arnold strains for a shelf she can't quite reach is when she tries to inject literary and visual metaphors into the movie. There is a thread involving a horse that was obvious enough before Arnold decided to put a finger right on its nose at the end. The final shot of the film is also a bit too "high school poetry" for my tastes.
Still, that's maybe four scenes in a two-hour movie. Not a bad ratio when you consider how much so many other directors get wrong in half the time.
Fish Tank plays on 2/19.
* I mixed up some dates in my review list, so posted this a little early, it seems.
Current Soundtrack: Retribution Gospel Choir, 2
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