Highly recommended by many of my friends, I put off seeing this movie because I could tell it would get to me. And it did.
This is one of the best, but most disturbing movies I’ve seen in a year. Treating an ugly reality, it is an ugly film – this is its best attribute. For some, I don’t recommend it. Its version of realism is the sort that makes you wince, because it gets under your skin and brings you into the awful world it depicts.
This sort of realism is a refreshing departure from the American “enhanced realism” we’ve become accustomed to from Hollywood, the sort that dazzles us with lights and loud sounds, scares us in supremely predictable ways, and makes us flinch and glorified hyperviolence. Just the opposite of Hollywood realism (think Braveheart, for example), there is no “erotic” aspect to its subject. Nothing becomes a myth, nothing fades into Hollywood, or reminds you that you’re seeing a movie. Everything hurts, especially the look in the eye of the young Malik, as he tries, and barely succeeds in every scene, to keep his head above water in a pool of violent death and brutal life.
The sequence is almost entirely filmed from inside the prison where Malik spends 6 years for petty crime. Malik is what in French society is called “beur”; that is, an ethnical Arab Frenchman of immigrant parents. Asked whether his mother tongue is French or Arab, he isn’t sure: “les deux,” “both.”
French prison is a brutal and gruesome place. It is hard not to be killed or brutalized unless you are a member of one of the gangs. Here there are two: the Arabs and the Corsicans; Malik quickly finds out he will not survive without the protection of more powerful people than himself.
Malik’s naked exposure to prison brutality oozes into nearly every scene in the film. In fact, this is one of its successes; without overtly thematizing this, we are brought to clearly see how helplessly he is manipulated by criminal thugs. The vulnerability and fragility of Malik’s condition in the prison make us feel vulnerable as well – and this is what makes watching the film so awful. This is also what makes the film so beautiful – it captures an essence that it brings to us, astonishingly, and this makes it the highest art.
Oh yes, the plot: well, he is in prison; he is given the choice to kill for a gang or be killed himself; he chooses to kill; he becomes a member of that gang; he becomes trusted and learns to manipulate rivalries to avoid being a victim himself.
But at this point he has already become an absolute victim, of the brutality of the prison system itself, which took a scared kid and transformed him into a hardened and connected criminal. At the end, there is a still an aura of sincerity and humanity in Malik’s eyes; his life still lays before him as he leaves prison. But it is difficult to imagine him doing relying on anything other than crime, since this is now what he is good at; this is what he has, literally, been schooled in for six years.
Final impressions: impeccably filmed; astonishingly acted; and there is much to learn from its scenes. In a number of ways, it reminds me of Jean Genet’s early novels. Except without jouissance.
Here is the trailer: