Director Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) throws us into a French prison with his antihero, Malik, who's doing six years for assaulting a cop. Only 19 years old, he's shy and awkward, but not afraid to stand up and show his toughness to the fellow prisoners. The prison is split between the Muslims and the Corsicans, the later of which run the joint through their organized connections on the outside. Malik becomes ingratiated with local boss Cesar Luciani when he's forced into doing a hit on a fellow inmate. Slowly we watch Malik learn the politics of the prison yard, playing both sides of the racial divide. When Malik is granted periodic day passes of leave, he elevates his influence outside the walls into his own empire of organized crime, eventually coming to a head with Luciani.
Throughout the course of this gripping and intense coming-of-age drama, we are introduced to a variety of players and characters (Latif the Egyptian, Jordi the Gypsy) told through titled sequences ("Christmas," "40 Days & 40 Nights") that colour the narrative with meaning and potent beauty while also saturating it in brutal horrors and the scum of humanity.
Newcomer Tahar Rahim plays Malik with bravery and tortured elation that are rarely seen on the silver screen these days. Honest to the point of hazard, Rahim gives Malik a way of looking at the world that draws us in and swallows us whole like a python.
Niels Arestrup (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly) makes Cesar Luciani a truly horrifying character, with a rage burning like brimstone behind his eyes. Each time his face appears on screen, it's the most heart racing two to three minutes of your life.
Audiard, however, deserves the most accolades; his direction is so tight not a moment of the audience's time is wasted. He shows us the underbelly of romantic France, highlighting the recent tensions with Arabs and Islamic culture, but mostly concentrates on the psychological thievery that prison enacts on its victims.
Audiard's personal and almost microscopic exploration of Malik, taking fantastic voyages inside his head, with surrealistic imagery, further allude to our antihero's loss of humanity. Many shots in this film are incomplete, with half of the picture blurred or blacked out, as if we the audience is only entitled to half of the real view. We are looking into their worlds through a tiny keyhole, and Audiard suggests they be reconstructed from the corners of photographs.
Malik's story is one of scheming and striving: by wit and endurance his sad journey of transformation unfolds before our eyes. It is precisely what great drama should be about. (Mongrel Media)
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