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ROUND UP IV: "A Prophet" Sets The Bar; "Antichrist" Goes Too Far?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire May 17, 2009 at 11:32AM

Of the competition films that descended on Cannes this weekend, Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" was certainly the one met with the most acclaim - setting itself up as a potential Palme d'Or frontrunner. "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," indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez said. "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."
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Of the competition films that descended on Cannes this weekend, Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" was certainly the one met with the most acclaim - setting itself up as a potential Palme d'Or frontrunner. "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," indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez said. "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."

Hernandez profiled the film's star Rahim, announcing him as one of the festival's major breakouts. "I had to create somebody totally different and it was extremely difficult,” Hernandez quoted Rahim, from the film's press conference Saturday, “I had to make up the role... I locked myself up. I imprisoned myself in an idea, as it were, [and] found it difficult to figure out what I was doing.”

The Hollywood Reporter's Peter Brunette certainly felt he figured it out, writing that "what's most immediately remarkable about the film is the raw intensity of its hyper-realistic encounters, hugely enhanced by the superb acting of newcomer Rahim," while Screen's Jonathan Romney goes even further in his acclaim: "Newcomer Tahar Rahim carries an extraordinary weight, on screen practically in every shot, and proves a mesmerising centre to the film, limning Malik as an unformed, seemingly weightless figure at the start, who gradually acquires considerable depth, forging his personality and mind through hard conscious struggle."

In a fantastic Cannes overview entitled "Where Art Trumps Industry," The New York Times' Manohla Dargis highlights Audiard’s film as one of her favorites thus far: "Sweeping and precisely observed — in one scene a gunman stares transfixed at a pair of expensive shoes in a shop window before committing a multiple hit — the film tells the story of one person that eventually becomes a story of an entire world ordered by violence. Using an occasional surrealistic flourish — a ghost makes regular appearances, at one point engulfed in flames — Mr. Audiard tracks Malik’s descent into this underworld with transparent compassion but none of the sentimentalizing that softens and cheapens too many mob stories."

While indieWIRE's own Anthony Kaufman calls the film one of Cannes' most conventional this year, but also one of the most satisfying: "Audiard skillfully captures Malik’s confusion with a wandering handheld camera and his limited worldview with a masked lens that only reveals a small circular portion of the frame - a closed-off perspective that will inevitably widen by the films’ conclusion."

One of the film's few mixed comes care of The AV Club's Mike D'Angelo, who finds that while "we have a frontrunner," his "hunger for something bold and visionary remains unsated."

Not being bold enough is not likely to be one of the criticisms to meet Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist", which caused quite the stir in its press screenings Sunday and is sure to be the talk of Cannes as it screens officially tomorrow. Roger Ebert called it the most despairing film he's ever seen: "It is an audacious spit in the eye of society. It says we harbor an undreamed-of capacity for evil. It transforms a psychological treatment into torture undreamed of in the dungeons of history. Torturers might have been capable of such actions, but they would have lacked the imagination. Von Trier is not so much making a film about violence as making a film to inflict violence upon us, perhaps as a salutary experience. It's been reported that he suffered from depression during and after the film. You can tell." (On an intensely lighter aside, check out indieWIRE's coverage of this weekend's ceremony re-naming the American Pavilion's conference and panel space, “The Roger Ebert Conference Center,” in which Martin Scorcese was among those on hand to fete Ebert).

Reuters reported that the film's screening "elicited derisive laughter, gasps of disbelief, a smattering of applause and loud boos." They quote Von Trier as saying: "I can offer no excuse for 'Antichrist' ... other than my absolute belief in the film -- the most important film of my entire career!"

A scene from Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist." Image courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival.

In a blog entry entitled "Antichrist = Fartbomb,"Jeffrey Wells seems to disagree, calling the film "easily one of the biggest debacles in Cannes Film Festival history and the complete meltdown of a major film artist in a way that invites comparison to the sinking of the Titanic."

Austin 360's Charles Ealy, however, said he felt like he just experienced a moment in cinematic history. "The movie’s violence has an emotional impact that hasn’t been seen since Gaspar Noe’s 'Irreversible,' which premiered here a few years ago," he says. "Critics will be debating whether these images were justified by the story, but part of the point is apparently to shock. Cinematic precedents exist, of course, but the explicitness of these scenes take “Antichrist” way beyond what’s come before."

indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman also found cautiously positive things to say about the film in his review, noting that "while there’s no doubt that the place he goes is off a precipitous edge, one can’t deny the film’s continuing primal power."

Finally, in a not-quite review , Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum suggests it was "the kind of scandal-courting press premiere on Sunday evening that the wily Danish bad-boy filmmaker must have hoped for": "The movie looks almost tauntingly great, of course, with von Trier's longtime collaborator (and Slumdog Millionaire Oscar winner) Anthony Dod Mantle as cinematographer. So it's one good-looking, publicity-grabbing provocation, with an overlay of pseudo-Christian allegory thrown in to deflect a reasonable person's accusations of misogyny. As a kicker, the director dedicates the picture to the memory of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky -- a final flip of the bird to the Cannes audience."

Be sure to check in with indieWIRE tomorrow for a report from what one can only assume should be a ridiculously interesting press conference with Von Trier.

And while it's hard to follow the magnitude of that "Antichrist" coverage with any additional links, there was a lot of other stuff going on on the Croisette this weekend. In brief, and indieWIRE specific:

Eric Kohn found Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” to contain "a dense plot littered with historical details of Egyptian society during the Roman Empire, but none of them can save the movie from having the fleeting qualities of a high school science class"; Anthony Kaufman loved Corneliu Porumboiu's latest, which screened in Un Certain Regard; Eugene Hernandez reported from the press conference of Ang Lee's poorly reviewed "Taking Woodstock", where Lee quipped that he "was yearning to do a comedy-slash-drama without cynicism"; and Robin Sanders took notes at a AmPav panel featuring Francis Ford Coppola. And be sure to track any of the competition titles on indieWIRE's Cannes film pages, including some competition titles that screened this weekend - Johnnie To's "Vengeance" and Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay", both of which should get the full critical roundup treatment on their film pages shortly.