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CANNES — French master Jacques Audiard has challenged the thus-far mostly middling Cannes competition with a powerful prison drama that’s an old-fashioned Bildungsroman in in-your-face, intensely realistic disguise. The militantly unprolific director of such exquisite small films as “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” which have appeared at roughly five-year intervals, has now moved to an infinitely broader canvas with outstanding results.
The film is perhaps a little long at 2 1/2 hours, though many partisans would probably argue that the full development of the subtle particulars of its ideas (not all of which are completely successful, it should be added) requires this leisurely pace. In any case, the film will be picked up for theatrical distribution in all major markets and also should do well on DVD.
First-time actor Tahar Rahim brilliantly embodies Malik El Djebena, a wayward Arab youth who lands in prison at the tender age of 19, unable to read or write. Upon arrival, he is cognizant of none of this forbidding place’s dangers and at the mercy of all. The first half-hour of the film depicts the ever-present violence, assorted humiliations and constant struggle for survival that pervade prison life in startlingly authentic ways that must have sprung from real-life experiences. Forced under threat of death by the Corsican gang that effectively runs the prison to befriend and kill a fellow Arab, Malik is thenceforward aligned with the Corsicans, whom he serves as a kind of slave in exchange for their protection. As the years pass, however, Malik educates himself in so many different ways, both legitimate and illegitimate, that he ultimately manages to challenge the prison’s power structure and, by playing different groups off each other in the outside world, begins to construct a little empire of his own.
What’s most immediately remarkable about the film is the raw intensity of its hyper-realistic encounters, hugely enhanced by the superb acting of newcomer Rahim. This naturalism is nicely counterpointed with a few unabashedly stylized, very lyrical sequences in which Audiard demonstrates his signature mastery of offbeat visual and sound effects. One motif that doesn’t quite work, however, is the regular, presumably ghostly return of the man Malik has killed. The comic vein in which these appearances are presented was presumably intended to provide some relief from the relentless and depressing reality of Malik’s prison life, but they clash with the film’s overall tone. (Similarly, the implications of the film’s title are addressed in only one short scene and never properly developed.)
But what finally cuts much deeper than the surface realism (a quality not exactly lacking in recent prison films like “Hunger”) is Audiard’s minute deconstruction of the various ways power is manifested in prison and, by extension, in human life at its most basic. The Corsicans (an ethnic group rarely represented in the cinema) detest and fear the “bearded ones,” the Muslims, as they brutally struggle to maintain control, and the director explores this basic tribal confrontation like a seasoned anthropologist. Audiard is also attentive to the tiniest revelatory gestures, as when he shows Malik, even at his nastiest, as little more than a gentle naif at heart. When this reluctant killer can’t suppress his childish delight at his first ride in an airplane, we are delighted as well.
Festival de Cannes — Competition
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Production companies: Why Not Prods., Chic Films, Page 114
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Reda Kateb, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard, after an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillat
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Michel Bathelemy
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Juliette Welfling
No rating, 149 minutes
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