It’s sometimes funny how filmmakers’ careers play out, and how the hand of fortune can give them a boost or a brush-off. Take Lee Tamahori: This Kiwi director had a powerhouse of a breakthrough film with “Once Were Warriors,” an unflinching tale of alcoholism and revenge set in Auckland’s Maori community, in 1994. The man was clearly a talent, but nobody knew what to do with him. Hollywood plucked him out of New Zealand and put him to work on a number of journeyman projects, ranging from neo-noir (“Mulholland Falls”) to a Bond film (“Die Another Day”), all of which were competent but rather ordinary affairs.
Tamahori had hit the level of doing Nicholas Cage pay-the-rent movies (“Next”) by the time he landed “The Devil’s Double,” easily his best work since “Warriors.” Why Tamahori was picked after this screenplay had passed through so many others’ hands I don’t know, but the film’s producers clearly knew the man’s strength. Much of the success of “Once Were Warriors” lay in Tamahori’s ability to draw a searingly frightening performance out of Temuera Morrison as an alternately smiling or snarling alcoholic wife-beater. Once seen, never forgotten, that one.
Tamahori repeats the trick here with Dominic Cooper playing Uday Hussein, son of Iraq’s fallen dictator Saddam, whose excesses might have made even Caligula blush. Tamahori imagines the source material — a memoir by Uday’s body-double, Latif Yahia, who was forced to be a red herring for the many people who wanted Uday dead — as a kind of Arabic “Scarface” crossed with Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha.”
Cooper manages the best dual performance since Sam Rockwell in “The Moon,” playing Latif with a stubborn pride and quiet desperation while going much larger with Uday: The manic, twitchy sick pup he comes up with has the menace of “Goodfellas”-era Joe Pesci. This is a guy who knows he can command no respect whatsoever, so he settles for fear instead.
The film plays fast and loose with the truth, especially in the coda, but if you want to watch one film about the Middle East that explains where the Arab Spring uprisings are coming from, this is it. The closet full of Rolexes and Cartiers, the torture videos, the offers to young women to “meet” which can’t be refused, the utter impunity with which the ruling families conduct themselves — none of this is unique to the Husseins.
“The Devil’s Double” is less a political thriller than a big, bling gangster flick, but these days, the difference between crime and politics is pretty hard to discern anyway.
Jacques Audiard’s “Un Prophete” (released in English-speaking territories as “A Prophet”) looks at crime from the other end of the social spectrum; while Uday Hussein enjoys the status to take whatever he wants, Audiard’s protagonist Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a young vagrant who, incarcerated for a minor crime, soon finds he has to kill or be killed in a brutal gang-controlled prison. Despite being of North African lineage, he falls under the protection of a powerful Corsican Mafia boss, Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who treats him as an errand boy. The Corsicans demand a lot in return, though, and view him as nothing more than a “dirty Arab.” Malik hides his feelings, and gradually schemes to turn the tables.
This film’s stamp of approval from Cannes — where it won the Grand Prix in 2009 — may lead one to expect something artier, but Audiard is a director whose art is always at the service of taut, suspenseful narrative. Anyone who’s enjoyed Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films will have no problem sinking into this.
Audiard actually draws heavily on 1970s American cinema, both in the rich, saturated colors of the film’s look and the raw, unprettified street-level realism of films such as “Serpico” or “Blue Collar.” Audiard built his own prison in an old factory, and stocked it with ex-cons who helped him stage the prison-yard scenes, where power is clearly defined by with whom you share a smoke. Even the ambient background sounds were recorded in actual prisons, and add to the claustrophobic feeling of constant danger.
And yet, Audiard also uses fantasy — in the form of dreams and nightmares that haunt Malik — to take us inside his head a bit. The director has insisted this is not just a prison movie, and I tend to agree: The film finds time for more poetic moments, such as Malik’s sheer wonder the first time he flies in a plane or steps into the ocean surf while on prison leave.
Rahim, a newcomer to cinema, does a fantastic job of letting us sense some core level of innocence that has somehow survived the blood he’s been forced to spill. Arestrup, a fantastic actor, plays the graying old boss with the almost regal dignity that marked Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, but also with the sudden feral capacity for a quick strike, reflecting the years his character spent in the joint.
I would go so far as to suggest that Audiard is the best director working in France these days. With only five films in 18 years, he clearly puts some time into getting each one right. “A Prophet” is as good a crime film as you could hope for, while always reaching to be something a bit more as well.