Prophet Motive 

Tough French crime drama turns A Prophet while Roman Polanski yanks America's chain.

With his jeans, warm-up jacket, trainers, and generic pan-Mediterranean looks, Malik El Djebena could be someone you'd meet on the street in the East Bay on any day of the week. He has that California look. But he's not in California. In the contemporary French underworld in which nineteen-year-old Malik operates, his half-Arab, half-French parentage puts him on the horns of a dilemma: Which side is he on?

Malik's allegiances come to the forefront as we're introduced to him entering prison on a six-year sentence for assaulting a police officer. He's a repeat offender, and from the stripes on his back we can see he's had it rough. Right away, Malik (played by Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim) has survival decisions to make. The inmates gravitate into two main camps, the Muslims and the Corsicans, and it's the Corse outfit that runs the prison — that's a no-brainer for Malik, despite the pull of his North African background.

In the yard, he carefully approaches César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the godfather of the joint, and is eventually given a task to prove himself. An Arab hood named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), who arrived as a new inmate at the same time as Malik, happens to be a trial witness temporarily stashed in the prison for safekeeping. Les corses want Reyeb dead because he's ready to testify against a friend of theirs. Even though Malik has never killed anyone, he's the perfect man for the job because he speaks Arabic — and besides, who would ever suspect he's working for Luciani? All the reluctant assassin has to do is accept Reyeb's sexual come-on in the shower, go to Reyeb's cell, and use the razor blade — the one he's been taught to conceal in his mouth — to slit the rat's throat.

Thus begins the young criminal's new career trajectory. His transformation from a punk to A Prophet (Un prophète) in director/co-writer Jacques Audiard's tense, brutal crime pic is a triumph of writing, acting (by a mostly amateur cast salted in just the right spots by professionals), and scene-setting.

The casting of 28-year-old actor Rahim is the key to the film. Everything congeals around the character of Malik. His moral progression is the soul of the screenplay — by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, from a story by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit — and not the ultra-realistic violence, which Malik uses sparingly and which haunts him in more ways than one.

Malik's curse on the outside becomes his salvation in prison. He's a "dirty Arab" to the Corsicans and a sellout to the Muslims, and so travels between the two sides relatively freely. A willingness to kill is not enough to save him. Illiterate when he first arrives, he teaches himself to read French and speak the Corse dialect, so that his lowly job of making coffee for Luciani and his gang allows him to learn their plans and act accordingly. But there are drawbacks to these ambitious schemes — the silent, beckoning ghost of Reyeb is his constant midnight companion.

Somewhat puzzlingly, the French penal system provides good-conduct leaves for trusted inmates, a two-day free pass that allows convicts to get out on a weekend and pull off a few jobs before escaping back to the penitentiary. Malik and his pal Ryad (Abdel Bencharif), now out of prison and still dabbling in larceny, take full advantage of this, with multi-tasker Malik spying for Luciani while ripping off dope deals as his personal sidelight. As Malik begins to rise up in the world, we meet a fascinating gallery of lowlifes: hashish smuggler Jordi le Gitan (Reda Kateb), rival drug dealer Latif l'Egyptien (Mamadou Minte), Marseille crime boss Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi), and Corsican mobster Sampierro (Pierre Leccia).

Malik notices that the Corse influence in prison is waning, so he is also careful to befriend the Arab inmate Hassan (Taha Lemaizi), just in case. There's trouble brewing on the outside between Italian racketeers and their Corse allies. All the while, the wily Luciani is studying Malik. His protégé operates a little too quietly for comfort — especially after Malik learns a remarkable bit of info: "The Italians always have a Corsican snitch."

A Prophet may be filmmaker Audiard's best yet, in a line from Read My Lips through The Beat That My Heart Skipped. The tough story of Malik combines a cool, methodical Jean-Pierre Melville mood with the stir-craziness of Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary actioners, plus a schpritz of Gomorra for good measure. With taciturn, direct sincerity, actor Rahim portrays the opportunistic Malik as a man of conscience whose misdeeds gradually catch up to him, each night in his dreams.

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer press-screened too late for last week's Express newsprint-edition deadline, so here are a few better-late-than-never comments on that appropriately dour entertainment.

The denouement is so hasty and borderline shabby that it threatens, however briefly, to derail the brilliant work of Polanski's cast. Ewan McGregor is particularly good as the unnamed title character, assigned to finish the work of a man found floating in the ocean. Polanski litters the proceedings with his angst-laden trademarks, such as when the writer, settling into his room at his employer's bunker-like home, discovers his predecessor's overlooked slippers under the bed — shades of The Tenant. McGregor's expression of amused, almost contemptuous disbelief at everything his boss (Pierce Brosnan) and the boss' wayward wife (Olivia Williams) tells him captures the classic freelance attitude perfectly.

Despite its disappointing finale, the screenplay by novelist Robert Harris and Polanski delivers its own smart, skeptical commentary on the W. Bush/Blair/Iraq war years, with their black, armored SUVs and implausible deniability. The Ghost Writer would make an ideal cautionary lower half of a double feature with Armando Iannucci's In the Loop. The Brosnan character Adam Lang, an exiled former UK prime minister in the process of being hauled up before a world court on war-crimes charges, reeks of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang's cultivated villains, as does the unremittingly grey tone of everything onscreen, from the concrete house to the sky and landscape. Welcome once again to the Ministry of Fear.

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