Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Réalisateur and A Prophet

Director Jacques Audiard and actor Tahar Rahim last month in San Francisco.  Their award-winning film "A Prophet" (Un Prophete) opens in San Francisco on March 5.   Omar P.L. Moore/

By Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Thursday, February 25, 2010

A smoking pipe is what stands between a journalist and a conversation. 

On the end of the pipe is director Jacques Audiard, who for 10 minutes has been effortlessly sending drifting wisps of smoke into the already cloudy San Francisco air.  Some Californians may wince at this, but Mr. Audiard cares little as he surveys the street and the architecture towering over it.  Typically French.  And why not?

Standing nearby is 28-year-old Tahar Rahim of Belfort, France.  Charismatic, with a slight build, he seems the opposite of a fish out of water in these California environs. 

Trying to speak French to him -- Anglo-French -- isn't a humiliating experience.  It isn't a struggle to make a fool of oneself in front of Mr. Audiard, who laughs, but helps his questioner along in his vain attempts to converse in the guests' native tongue.

Mr. Rahim, an easygoing young man, hasn't let the success of his role as Malik in Monsieur Audiard's remarkable "A Prophet" (Un Prophete) get to his head.  He is friendly and relaxed as he opines on some of the differences between France and America, as well as on his future flights to India to promote "A Prophet".  The epic film has been on an amazing journey over the last nine months.  "A Prophet" won last year's Grand Prize (Palm D'Or) at Cannes.  Earlier this month it won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

In January Mr. Audiard's film picked up 12 Cesar Award nominations, including best director, actor, screenplay and picture, leading the field for France's top film awards.  (The Cesars will be held this Saturday, a day after "A Prophet" opens in New York and Los Angeles.)  The film played at last month's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and was awarded the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Language earlier this week.

"A Prophet" is about Malik, a part Arab, part Corsican man who enters the penal system and takes a journey that has to be seen to be appreciated.  Powerful, immediate and always absorbing, "A Prophet" is the kind of film that hews firmly to character study, yet has a solid plot integrating the dynamics of character to give the story its propulsive force. 

"It's a big film," Mr. Rahim said. 

Mr. Rahim's resume consisted of a grand total of one feature film prior to working on "A Prophet" opposite decorated veteran actor Niels Arestrup, who plays Cesar, a gangland crime boss.  Mr. Arestrup also starred in Mr. Audiard's acclaimed drama "The Beat That My Heart Skipped".

During the conversation, the newcomer gave an unsurprising response to a question about working with Mr. Arestrup.

"Yes, I was intimidated," confirmed Mr. Rahim with a smile. 

"And not least of all by him", he quickly added as he motioned to Mr. Audiard, who laughed knowingly. 

Mr. Rahim suddenly reverted to speaking French and translator Don McMahon interpreted.  "[The collaboration with Mr. Arestrup] was stimulating and it allowed me to overcome certain obstacles and come to the forefront.  That was the challenge, which I overcame.  And I had a lot of help." 

To execute the director's vision, careful calibrations and calculations took place.

"Each scene -- each situation, we would go through what degree of dramatic intensity it should have to make the whole thing work.  Maybe you have 150 or 250 sequences, or close-ups or different things.  It was all (shot) in one place," said Mr. Audiard.  "Time stands still", he said of "A Prophet", some of which looks and feels as if it takes place on a chessboard filled with human drama.  There's black and there's white, and then there's all the grays in between, where the characters are concerned.

Musically, "A Prophet" recruits the talents of Alexandre Desplat, the composer who has scored dozens of films around the world, including in Hollywood.  Mr. Audiard noted that often in American films there's "wall-to-wall" music.  He cited that when both he and Mr. Desplat were in Paris after the latter's arrival there from another working session in Hollywood, Mr. Desplat had talked about having done "an hour and 40 minutes, an hour and 50 minutes" of music for a Tinseltown film. 

Contrast that with the 20 to 25 minutes' worth that Mr. Desplat put in for Mr. Audiard's "A Prophet", which took 16 weeks to shoot. 

The director gives a hearty laugh when recalling the disparate times spent on music in his conversation with Mr. Desplat.  (The composer's latest big screen music score can be heard in this Friday's initial U.S. release of Roman Polanski's new film "The Ghost Writer".)

Asked about stereotypes of Arabs in film and whether he thought about such issues when making "A Prophet", the director said: "This was a genre film and it was to have roles that were not traditional and that hadn't been seen in that type of film before.  That was the project.  That's what we wanted to do."

"A Prophet" (Un Prophete) opens in New York and Los Angeles exclusively this Friday, February 26.  The film opens in San Francisco on March 5.

Tahar Rahim as Malik in Jacques Audiard's epic film "A Prophet" (Un Prophete).    Sony Pictures Classics

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