A great prison drama you've got to see

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Roger Arpajou

The magnificent French prison drama A Prophet swept France’s Cesar Awards last night, winning prizes for best picture, director, actor, original screenplay, and cinematography, among other categories. And if this news doesn’t quite rank up there with a box office report on the opening of Cop Out or the second weekend of Shutter Island, well, it’s still news I jump on to say more about the very best, most exciting movie not yet at most theaters near you. Oh, I can’t wait until it is at a theater near you — maybe after it wins an Oscar on March 7, in my perfect world? (The movie also won the Grand Prize last year at Cannes.)

Then you and I can discuss how engrossing and how thrilling filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s unconventionally ”conventional” jailhouse saga is. Then you and I can compare and contrast A Prophet to Goodfellas (props to Scorsese when he’s not wasting his talents on hooey like Shutter Island). We can discuss movies about convicts who come of age behind bars. We can discuss prison dramas in which ethnic antagonisms reflect the bigger world outside. We can talk about Audiard’s precise choice of casting a skinny French-Arab unknown in the crucial lead role, and how now-lauded actor Tahar Rahim’s then-anonymity became the character’s strength. And we can analyze the daring screenplay decision to include an actual jailhouse ghost in the plot.

We can do that, but only once you get to see the beaut. And since A Prophet is in French (and Arabic and Corsican) and since it comes with subtitles, the roll-out is necessarily (I suppose) slower. Which kills me, since I guarantee you it’s also way, way more exciting than anything else new you saw this past weekend.