By Lisa Schwarzbaum
May 17, 2009 at 06:24 PM EDT

Roger Ebert is in Cannes this year. For decades, such a headline would be like announcing that the sun came up this morning, since Roger has been in Cannes for over a quarter of a century, savoring the film festival and sending witty dispatches via every state-of-the-art communication device in his arsenal: He has always been an excited kid when it comes to technological advances, a whiz with a mini digital camera and a laptop when some of his colleagues were still using Morse Code and Teletype machines. (Come to think of it, I suspect a few of those old guys still are. They’re the ones clogging the aisles while fumbling with their newfangled cell phones as the press corps spills out of the Palais after a screening.)

But, of course, Roger has been ill these past few years. He can no longer speak. Travel, even with the phenomenal organizational support of his powerhouse wife, Chaz, has got to be a challenge of proportions unknown to the crew of the Enterprise. So the sight of him here at the festival he loves so much is a thrilling thing. To me, it’s more thrilling than a Brad Pitt sighting. But that’s just me. Plus, the guy writes more in a day than ten of us PopWatch jockeys put together. Formidable.

And now on to a formidable movie, taking the early lead as the 2009 festival favorite: A Prophet, by Jacques Audiard, is a strong French take on Goodfellas, a young man’s coming of age in prison as a mob power. Impressive newcomer Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, illiterate, alone, and friendless when he enters the prison system. An old-time Corsican crime boss in the joint takes Malik on both as a kind of a slave (the Corsican crew call him an “Arab dog”) and a protege. But the quick learner doesn’t stay a slave forever…. Audiard, who turned James Toback’s Fingers into the crackling French pic The Beat That My Heart Skipped, has a great feel for mob-and-prison genre at its most stripped down — there’s none of the eroticized flourishes of TV’s Oz. And he’s got an authoritative ear for the French-Arab-Muslim cultural stew. I suspect the Cannes jury — which includes We Own the Night director James Gray — will love it, too.

As for the trend that ought to end? I’ve seen at least three young European men-about-Cannes holding their flopping hair back with elasticized double headbands.  So from the neck down, they look like Eminem, and from the neck up they look like Gossip Girls. Chic or tragique? I think I’ll check with Roger Ebert.

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