The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) gets underway today, and plenty of films vying for Oscar glory will be seen for the first time. Other holdovers from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and Venice will also get a moment in the sun, a reintroduction for North American audiences.
One film of the latter variety is Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” the controversial Palme D’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Many people chalked up the film’s unexpected victory to its director simply being due for the prize after coming up short numerous times. One such missed opportunity was back in 2009 when Audiard debuted “A Prophet.”
I first watched the film after it received a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars back in 2010 … and found myself quite underwhelmed. For whatever reason, I just could not connect with it. But once “Dheepan” took the big prize in Cannes, I felt obliged to give it another go. The second time around, I was actually quite taken by the film. I still think “Fish Tank” deserved the Palme D’Or, but “A Prophet” is certainly worth of my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
Audiard’s film is a patiently paced prison drama that goes for slow, longitudinal change rather than explosive incidents. Think “The Shawshank Redemption,” but as an art film instead of something so commercial. “A Prophet” follows Tahar Rahim’s Malik, a most curious double agent, as he games both sides of a Corsican/Muslim prison gang tussle. He wants to make a big move one day in the future – even though that forces him to assume a subservient position for the ruthless, spineless Corsican ringleader (Niels Arestrup).
Audiard was smart to cast Rahim, a novice actor when he filmed “A Prophet.” A well-versed thespian might have tried to slip hints towards a greater intellect humming beneath the surface of Malik. Rahim, however, plays him as a rather ordinary man of no particular intelligence, just sort of making it up as he goes. He’s playing the long game, not necessarily because he focuses on the ends but mostly because he cannot sufficiently navigate the present.
Malik’s rise to power, when watched in the right state of mind, makes for truly riveting cinema. While it might not always be pulse-pounding action, the novel-like breadth of its narrative provides a rich experience for serious-minded movie lovers.