By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire May 17, 2009 at 1:16AM
Unseen as a lead actor on the big screen until yesterday, twentysomething French actor Tahar Rahim just may own the breakthrough acting performance of The Cannes Film Festival for his star making turn in Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" (Un Prophete).
Earlier in the fest, indieWIRE profiled untrained discovery Katie Jarvis, the star in Andrea Arnold's Cannes competition entry, "Fish Tank" and today we take a closer look at Tahar Rahim, a young actor who has been working towards this big moment for only a few years. Stirring the Croisette at its screenings in Cannes this weeekend, the French film is certainly an early front-runner for prizes here.
Born in France in 1982, Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, an illiterate young lone wolf and small-time crook sentenced to prison for six years. While in jail he falls in with a Corsican mob and quickly learns how to survive on the inside, and at the same time building a criminal reputation on the outside during occasional one-day leaves of abscence. By the end of his sentence he's risen among the ranks atop an emerging new gang.
Audiard's "A Prophet" has already been compared to Scorsese's nearly twenty year old "Goodfellas" many times over the past 24 hours here in France for its engaging examination of a seedy, gangster-driven underworld. Tahar Rahim's "Malik" is not unlike Ray Liotta's "Henry Hill." An innocent who quickly comes of age in the mob, yet can't evade the inner demons he's stirring with his shady activity. The young Arab is schooled in the ways of the mafia by a Corsican godfather, leading to an inevitable conflict.
"I had to create somebody totally different and it was extremely difficult," Rahim explained, via a translator, yesterday here in Cannes, "I had to make up the role." The physically challenging performance forced him to work hard to create the role. "I studied," Rahim added, "I studied documentaries and various films about prisons and the prison environment."
"[He's] naive in a way," Audiard explained, during a translated press conference. "Almost a virgin, who utlimtlatey builds up his identity within his commmunity. "He's got no background, he is homeless. And at the end, he's got a story and an identity and a home to go to."
Rahim studied cinema in Montpelier, ultimately deciding that what he really wanted to do was act, so he moved to Paris to study the craft. While he has very few credits, one was on a series written by one of the film's co-writers, Abdel Raouf Dafri. Jacques Audiard met the younger actor rather randomly in the back of a car while Rahim was working with another friend and the director quickly realized that the actor would be perfect for the lead role in his new film.
After studying and experimenting to create the charater, Rahim said he was given tremendous freedom and learned a great deal from Audiard and co-star Niels Arestrup, who played his mob mentor in the movie. Audiard explained that he worked with Rahim to create a different sort of mafia character. Not a "Scarface" figure, but rather a new type who more angelic than psychopathic.
"I locked myself up," Rahim explained on Saturday. "I imprisoned myself in an idea, as it were, [and] found it difficult to figure out what I was doing."
"Then the puzzle came together," he concluded. "And I no longer thought about the character."