This is a deeply complex movie that is not only a classic jail/gangster film. It is a film about a father/son, master/slave, teacher/pupil relationship, a film about endless betrayals, personal and ethnic. Malik ends up having to work for with the Corsican mafia in jail and alienated from his people, the Muslim Arabs. At the intake process he claims he is not religious, he doesn't pray, he equivocates about eating pork. He is assimilated, except he can't read or write. The Corsicans are horribly racist towards (in this milieu, if not in France, the phrase "your Arab" basically means "your servant", which is appalling). But Malik quietly bides his time, learns their language, allows them to insult him, because he is doggedly heading towards his survival and quiet, calculated revenge. He may be the most realistic hero ever, not given to grandiose gestures or showy moral posturing. He just silently watches and learns and becomes a gifted criminal in his own right. He is such an observant and quick study, you root for him all the way.
The movie hinges on a murder that he is forced to commit. If he doesn't do it, he will be killed. He is queasy with fear, and debased by having to perform this act. Once he has crossed that threshold, which doesn't go as cleanly as rehearsed, it leaves him deeply shaken (how many times have you seen this happen in an American film?). Yet instead of shriveling with guilt, he learns to live with it, in order to continue surviving emotionally. The dead man appears in his dreams and waking hours, and poignantly becomes his cellmate, a phantom presence that both haunts him and keeps him company.
We are inured to the obscene violence in American films, the more obscene because it is fetishized and banal and stripped from its revolting essence. Not in this film. I will be forever grateful to Audiard for reminding movie audiences that murder is a heinous and barbaric event, not something entertaining or to be taken lightly.
Audiard's masterful command works at the service of the story, of building character with incredible detail and intimacy, never getting in the way with directorial stylistic flourishes.
Many scenes in this movie took my breath away. Some were just fleeting moments; some, so well written that I gasped. The scene in which Malik is about to kill his victim is astonishing. The first time Malik gets to leave jail for a day, he is in a car and he's feeling the wind on his face. Could have been a cliché, but having spent an hour or more with him in the claustrophobic nightmare of jail, when this scene comes along, you can almost feel the bracing rush of the wind on your own skin. An unbearably tender moment in which he falls asleep with a baby in his arms, allows him a simple bliss he has never experienced. And the amazing final scene leaves one heavyhearted at the prospects for this young, talented criminal. After so much surviving, there is still more surviving to do.
Tahar Rahim, who plays Malik, is astounding. He is quiet and unassuming but convincingly traverses an extreme dramatic arch, from being a scared teenager innocent of the ways of jail, to an entrepeneurial mini boss. The incredible Niels Arestrup, who plays Cesar, the Corsican capo that both abuses and protects Malik in jail, is unforgettable as an old man who has total control in a place he can never escape, and whose diminishing influence leaves him frightened and alone. I loved the music by the great Alexandre Desplat. The movie is richly rewarding and its great intelligence and endlessly resonant layers of bitter irony grow on you the more you think about them.