The excitement surrounding the Cameron showdown will no doubt distract us all from the fact that in the year that the Best Picture pool was extended by the Academy to ten, European cinema came up with three classics superior to all the nominated English-language films.
And this is one of them.* Jacques Audiard's prison drama missed out on the big prize at Cannes, but last week scopped the London Critics' Circle award and the BAFTA for best foreign language film.
A young north African juvenile offender named Malik El Djebena comes of age and is duly upgraded to a big boys' jail — a kind of hell with baguettes — where he must complete his six year sentence for assaulting a police officer, a crime he denies to the first prison official to question him about it.
Cesar Luciani, capo of the Corsican community in the jail, soon picks Malik, a newcomer, an unprotected loner, as the man who must slit the throat of Reyeb, an Arab snitch being lined up to testify against Luciani's boss on the outside. Either you kill him or I kill you, Luciani tells Malik. The Corsican kingpin may be an embittered lifer but through his henchmen inside and his Mafia ties outside, he controls many of the prison 'hacks' and so Malik has nobody to turn to once presented with this hefty dilemma.
The situation reminded me somewhat of that faced by John Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses. For Malik it becomes a right of passage.
We watch as he begins to better himself, while sometimes corrupting others. His fellow Muslims start to regard him as an honourary Corsican because he appears willing to be employed as an all-round scivvy by the men around Luciani, but the capo secretely uses him as his eyes and ears — after discovering that Malik has bothered to pick up a rudimentary grasp of Italian — and when asked by curious independents he's happy to state that he works for himself, not Luciani or the mysterious Imam who guides the Muslim prisoners from outside.
The delicious tension in Audiard's movie reflects that between Malik's drive for self-assertion and the moments of humiliation and danger he must constantly submit himself to before he can emerge from the jail in Brécourt with a degree of triumph — a state of affairs which will beg us to ask the question if we can admit that this tarnished man is at least in some ways better than he was before.
Tahar Rahim's performance as Malik is impressive, but Niels Arestrup's was for us the most striking, as he completely nails his portrayal of the sinister Luciani — a man who can go from 0-psycho in an instant, but whose frustrations and pathetic inner being are increasingly brought out as Sarkozy's legislation strips him of most of his Corsican entourage and the realisation dawns on him that the rather obviously shifty Malik is the only man he can rely on...perhaps.
If this film had been in English it would probably already be being hailed as a classic of its kind, destined to be included for many years in those lists that journos produce when they get a little bored
* See also The White Ribbon and Let The Right One In.