‘A Prophet’ tries to crash Oscar’s Foreign Language Film race

02.26.10 8 years ago

AP Photo/Francois Mori

It’s been an incredibly dramatic year for the three men behind France’s acclaimed drama “A Prophet” (or “Un Prophete” as the filmmakers would prefer).  The film was generally regarded as the best picture at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it made its debut, but lost the prestigious Golden Palm to Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.”  And since then, that’s been a constant outcome for director Jacques Audilard, writer Thomas Bidegian and breakout star Tahar Rahim.

“Loser, loser,” Bidegian jokes after we chatted following the Golden Globes last month. “That’s been our life for the past six months.  We travel 6,000 kilometers. We put on a tux.  We go, we sit.  We applaud Michael Haneke, we have a couple of drinks and we go home.”

That all changed last Sunday, however, when “A Prophet” upset “Ribbon” to win Best Foreign Language Film at the British Orange Film Awards. Nominated in the same category for the Oscars, “Prophet’s” chances of upsetting “Ribbon” or Argentina’s underdog “The Secret of their Eyes” are slim because of what are becoming increasingly outdated Academy rules, but fans of the picture are holding out hope.  Moreover, “Prophet” is finally hitting theaters this weekend in New York and Los Angeles so even more moviegoers will have a chance to enjoy it.

The contemporary story tells the tale of a young French man of Arab descent, Malik (the charismatic Tahar Rahim), who is set to prison for a petty crime.  In the ensuing years, he becomes the trusted lackey for a former crime boss still trying to control his empire from behind bars. What happens to him next should be predictable, but director Jacques Audiard’s vision is so captivating that you are completely enthralled and on the edge of your seat as Malik’s journey develops.

A good deal of the “A Prophete’s” success comes not just from Audiard, but his choice in newcomer Rahim. 

“We met by chance and something caught my attention at that point,” Audiard says. Still, the director put Rahim through a string of auditions alongside other contenders. “You cannot tell yourself you have the first one right away.  It would mean the first time in your life you were lucky and you know it’s not possible.”

Except in this case, Rahim was the possible. The 28-year-old actor had only landed three small roles before, but dived into the character once he had secured his big break. I asked Rahim if he was able to visit any local correctional facilities like so many American actors claim to do for “research.”  Rahim smiles and says, “In France they won’t let you do that.  I watched a lot of films and many documentaries and many docs helped me during that trial process.  I also talked with a few ex-convicts who told me stories.”

The success of “Prophet” has “changed everything” for Rahim. 

“Personally, because I grew throughout the shooting of the film and now because of the film’s success, people listen when I talk and now it’s the time of making decisions,” Rahim says.

That means taking chances in recently completed roles such as Kevin Macdonald’s period adventure “The Eagle and the Ninth” with Channing Tatum (where he doesn’t speak English, just an ancient dialect).  But yes, Rahim, who does speak some of the Queen’s language, is open to working in Hollywood.

As for a sequel, if any prestige picture calls for one it’s “A Prophet.”  Both Audilard and Bidegian admit they’ thought about it during the script process.

Bidegian recalls, “When you see the film it feels like it’s the beginning of something.  It kind of calls for a follow up or sequel, but all gangster films have a rise and fall.  This is the rise, so that’s why people probably wonder what happens next.”

Does that mean audiences will be able to witness more of Malik’s life story  anytime soon?  Not according to the busy Audiard.

“For the moment ‘no.’ You have to raise the stakes first,” Audiard says.

But he’s clearly considering it. 

“A Prophet” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

To read Drew McWeeny’s review of “A Prophet,” click here.

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