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Cannes 2009: Pilgrim’s Progress (“A Prophet,” Audiard)

As in most gangster movies, character interest and plot interest are the same in A Prophet: a man’s identity is the moves he makes. Which is why the movie holds on as an investigation into who the main character, Arab prisoner Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), is—every move he makes is ordered by a prison mobster, while his one or two stabs at autonomy and power are intended only to free him from slavery, and only tangle him deeper in the system. There are all sorts of frameworks here, a patricidal Greek tragedy, a microcosm of the Arabs’ rise to power in France, a Burt Lancaster melodrama of a old man deluding himself of his power, a Rousseau-ian political allegory of men in chains from nature, and a Nietzschian religious allegory about pretending man-made structures are the dictates of god—and about the prophets who deliver the dictates. They’re all just scaffolding for what really counts, in a world where relationships are only economic, as if every man were a nation-state: the rules and procedures and schemes of people staying alive in prisons and mobs in France, 2009, the precautions they take with cell phones, or the best way to slice a guy’s throat. A Prophet doesn’t need a film critic, but a critic who’s been to jail and the mob and back, to say how good it is. At the least, it’s a handbook to the way a world could operate and people talk and take stock of their opportunities, as much a termite piece as The Wire.

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