A Prophet and Mother
Here we go with another double feature review, two for the price of one (the price in this case being merely a few moments of your time…whatta deal!). It was another long night at the movies for me with these two … A Prophet was 2 hours and 45 minutes, and Mother was 2 hours, 15 minutes. That’s five solid hours of celluloid entertainment. Luckily, they were both good movies. Otherwise I may have been moved to stab my eyes out with a soda straw.
Un Prophète, known here in the U.S. as A Prophet, is a French film that was recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to Argentina’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos). It’s about Malik El Djebena, a North African Muslim 19-year-old who is sentenced to six years in a French prison for assaulting some police officers. He sets out to keep a low profile and simply do his time in peace, but fat chance at that happening. One of Malik’s fellow inmates is Cesar Luciani, a brutal leader of the Corsican mob, and he rules much of what goes on in the prison because he has administrators and guards in his pocket.
Cesar is called upon to kill an Arab prisoner named Reyeb, who is incarcerated at the prison while waiting to testify against some mobsters on the outside. Cesar approaches Malik to do the job, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t murder Reyeb. Malik tries to get out of having to commit the killing, even by having himself confined to solitary, but he finally has no choice but to agree. Soon, one of Cesar’s henchmen is coaching him on the best way to rub out Reyeb using a razor blade that will be hidden in Malik’s mouth. Malik sheds some blood himself while practicing concealing the blade in his mouth, which provided the film with some squirmy moments. When the time comes for Malik to do the deed…well, that was a fairly squirmy moment, too.
Due to Cesar’s connections in the prison Malik gets away with the murder, and Cesar begins using him for other chores, including arranging leave for him to conduct mob business on the outside. This leads Malik deeper into the criminal underworld and new opportunities, and the once-timid young prisoner begins realizing the potential of his blossoming criminal career.
A Prophet is an excellent “prison film,” with plenty of tense moments. The acting was terrific. Tahar Rahim as Malik tries to swim against the criminal current in which he finds himself, and he sweeps us along with him. His transformation from frightened kid to savvy crook makes for riveting drama. Niels Arestrup as Cesar is the quintessential bad guy. Sitting quietly on a bench in the prison yard, watching and calculating while flanked by his posse, a glance from him exudes the danger of a charging rhino. Hichem Yacoubi plays Reyeb, who eerily continues to appear in specter form to Malik after Malik kills him.
Mother is the newest film from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. Bong appeared on my radar back in 2006, when he made the superior monster movie, The Host. If you like monster movies, see The Host! It’s about a hard-to-describe amphibious creature – let’s just say that it’s large and slimy, can run very fast and has a big mouth with large teeth -- that emerges from the Han River in downtown Seoul. It runs amok and in so doing it absconds with the youngest daughter of a local family. Soon her family is conducting its own investigation into the creature, in a determined effort to hunt it down and rescue the little girl. The Host is one of those rare monster movies that has it all: scares and laughs, a really cool monster, characters you care about, a good story, and a heart.
Family devotion is also at the core of Mother, the story of a chronically worried mom and her mentally handicapped adult son. A young girl’s body turns up in the village where they live, and the son is arrested and charged with the murder. His mother, of course, is certain that a mistake has been made, and she implores everyone to believe her, including the murdered girl’s grieving family. She finds no help from the police, and she is soon shunned by the community, belittled and beleaguered until she, much like the family in The Host, decides to take matters into her own hands in order to clear her son of murder charges. What follows is a mystery thriller with twists and turns, with a dash of comedy thrown in, as the anguished mother does everything within her power to save her son. This includes engaging in some decidedly un-motherly acts.
I found Mother and A Prophet engaging and entertaining. If you don’t mind reading subtitles, you should, too.