'The Prayer' ('La Priere'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

The habit makes the monk in this compelling portrait of rehab and religion.

French director Cedric Kahn (‘Red Lights’) chronicles one young drug addict’s difficult path to recovery in this Berlin Competition entry.

French director and occasional actor Cedric Kahn is probably best known in the U.S. for a trio of thrillers he made more than a decade ago, beginning with the brooding sexual obsession story L’Ennui, which he followed up with the serial-killer portrait Roberto Succo and the Georges Simenon adaptation Red Lights. Since then, Kahn has made a handful of dramas exploring different facets of Gallic life, from the affairs of the bourgeoisie (The Regrets) to the travails of a struggling middle-class couple (A Better Life) to those of a family living on the fringes of modern society (Wild Life).

Each movie is marked by Kahn’s razor-sharp direction and excellent choice of cast, with characters often caught in a downward spiral that takes on increasing levels of angst. His latest effort, The Prayer (La Priere), is cut from a similar cloth, although the trajectory of its young hero moves in the opposite direction: from a place of darkness and abandon to one of possible redemption.

The film follows Thomas (Anthony Bajon, riveting), a 22-year-old heroin addict who washes up on the doorstep of a rehab clinic at the foot of the French Alps. Sporting a black eye and behaving very much like a wounded animal, Thomas is taken in by the clinic’s de facto leader, Marco (Spanish actor Alex Brendemuhl), who explains the rules of a place that seems to be part monastery, part detox center and part military barracks. Its inhabitants are almost all young men, hailing mostly from rough backgrounds and trying to kick their drug habits through a mix of prayer and hard labor. They are completely cut off from society and have to rely on one another to survive.

Kahn and co-writers Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux, working from an original idea by Aude Walker, chronicle Thomas’ rocky road to recovery in painstaking detail. At first he seems like a lost cause — the kid can barely utter a word; violently attacks anyone who tries to help him out; and, after only a week or two, decides to run away.

Thankfully, he doesn’t make it that far, washing up at the home of a charitable family whose beautiful archeologist daughter, Sybille (Louise Grinberg), soon becomes a love interest. If that plot point seems a tad contrived, the rest of The Prayer, which follows Thomas as he gives rehab a second go, is infused with plenty of documentary-like authenticity, especially in its portrayal of a group of young men trying to exorcise their demons. Most of them are poor and have been abandoned by their families, which is why the camaraderie provided by the collective becomes the only positive thing keeping them afloat.

Certain sequences stick out, most notably an early one where Thomas goes through the painful throes of heroin withdrawal while his roommates try to subdue him. It looks like his body is quaking with religious ecstasy, or else that he’s suffering a beating like the ones administered by the Marines in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Indeed, The Prayer seems caught between a world of spiritual awakening and one of Marine Corps-style brutality, although in terms of the latter the characters mostly do damage to themselves by failing to stay drug free.

Another film that comes to mind is Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, whose hero follows a similar upward trajectory in a very different setting. Here, we see Thomas gradually crawling out of his shell and coming into his own amid a monumental backdrop of snow-capped peaks and open skies, which only underscores the fact that his prison is an internal one. Toward the end of the movie, he’s been transformed from a mute vagrant into a penitent altar boy, although it’s unclear if he is now a true believer or if Catholicism is simply another form of addiction. (Thomas is interrogated at one point by a visiting nun — played by the great German actress Hanna Schygulla — who further questions his faith and pushes him toward a greater conviction.)

Kahn never offers an easy way out for Thomas, even if the finale tends to wrap things up in ways that seem a little too conclusive. But his film mostly explores, with steadfastness and moments of raw emotion, the crude uphill battle faced by junkies on the path to recovery. It’s a veritable way of the cross where many don’t make it and others do, only to relapse a few months or years later. To paraphrase what one boy says to Thomas: You always remain an addict even when you’re finally clean. In The Prayer, those who manage to kick their habits once and for all like some kind of a miracle.

Production company: Les Films du Worso
Cast: Anthony Bajon, Damien Chapelle, Alex Brendemuhl, Louise Grinberg, Hanna Schygulla
Director: Cedric Kahn
Screenwriters: Fanny Burdino, Samuel Doux, Cedric Kahn, based on an original idea by Aude Walker
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Guillaume Deviercy
Costume designer: Alice Cambournac
Editor: Kayre Gardette
Casting director: Antoine Carrard
Sales: Le Pacte

In French
107 minutes