(2009) director Jacques Audiard
This gritty prison drama (are there any other kind?) from France received a lot of praise and was a favorite to win the Foreign Film Oscar this year, in competition with Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), though they both lost out to the Argentinian film The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). Stiff competition.
The story follows 19 year old Malik, a youth of North African descent as he is installed into prison for a six year stretch. No family, no connections, illiterate, he has only the wadded up bank note in his possession when he moves from a long string of youth imprisonments to the big time. It’s the kind of story that prison reformists would cite. He goes in a petty criminal, but comes out a masterful thug, learning how to survive in the racially divisive and brutally racist gangs in jail.
From the very get-go, he is forced at the threat of death to kill a fellow inmate for the Corsican gang that has most of the run of the prison. The Corsicans are led by brutal César, who is played with rich malice by Niels Arestrup. After completing this assassination, Malik receives the Corsicans’ protection but not their friendship. To them, he is an Arab, and thus scum. To the Arabs, he is a traitor who has aligned himself with the racist Corsicans. Besides his rehabilitation training in learning to read, what Malik learns in the prison is how not only to be an effective criminal but how to manage all the varying racial groups, playing his way in the deadly game to the top of the heap.
I’d be lying if I said that I knew first-hand how volatile and poisonous the racial mixture in Europe really is. But from the varying films that I’ve seen, books that I’ve read, and other media, the picture is one of a melting pot that is far more a crucible than a homogenator. While there have for centuries been people from the same varying regions entering France and its many facets of culture and life, the state of things at the present is as nasty as perhaps it ever has been. Malik, the protagonist, is torn in his identity, not having ever known his parents, nor what any “culture” could signify to him. He plays the game for himself and his one true friend and ally, but he is haunted as well by the man that he killed.
The film is an interesting mixture of realism and surrealism. Clearly, most of the film is dramatically naturalistic and visceral, but director Jacques Audiard plays a bit with Malik’s perscpective, occasionally shrouding the screen as if looking out through a peephole at reality. But additionally, Malik is haunted by dreams and a ghost of the man he killed, a recurring theme of something other than realism.
It’s a solid film, quite powerful, quite telling. But I have to say that the one image that I might come away from the film with the most pointedly is the French inmates being given their daily baguettes. The prison might be a hellhole, but at least there’s baguettes everyday.