24 January 2010


I saw two very different films this weekend, as I like to do, although the relationship between two brothers is important in both. In Brothers, the pair are actual brothers, while in Un prophète, they are more kindred spirits--fellow Arabs, marginalised in a French prison where a powerful Corsican gang of inmates rule the roost.

Despite its cast of Toby Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, Brothers had the potential to be a really  trite emofest: Maguire plays Sam, the elder son, the "good" son, a marine who is married to Grace (Portman). Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, plays Tommy, the black sheep--he is released from prison a few days before Sam returns to Afghanistan and generally gains no respect from anyone in his family, who have long since given up on him. Then, Grace finds out that Sam has been killed (or is, at least, missing presumed dead) and is, understandably devastated. Now, the trailer implies that from here on, we will be in cliché city and that Grace and Tommy will fall deeply in love, which will cause big problems when Sam inevitably returns having not been dead at all. Or as Joey in Dawson's Creek puts it (describing either The Last Picture Show, which is, in this episode a relevant plot point, or her own coming between two best friends):

"So, whatever I do, I'm the villain. The girl's always the villain, right? In stories like these she's always some wicked, conniving whore who manipulates her way between two brothers or two best friends."

Luckily, Brothers decides not to go down that route and is a lot more understated and complicated. We also get to see Sam in Afghanistan as he tries to make his way back to safety and the terrible things he has to go through--and to do--that explain why on his return home, he barely seems like the same person any more and while he expresses his anger and guilt by accusing Grace and Tommy of having a relationship, it is clear to us that this is just a defence mechanism. As for Grace and Tommy, you can tell in advance when they are going to kiss because they are sitting in front of a candle-lit fireplace and (crucially) there is a U2 track on the radio (Bad) over which they bond (another U2 song, Winter, having already been pimped in the credits). The kiss, though, is almost beside the point and the way Sam's daughters shy away from him on his return and just ask when Uncle Tommy is coming round hurts him more.

And while the family learns that the golden son is not perfect, the black sheep, though not becoming the model son or model brother himself, sure does do a good job renovating Grace's kitchen. The grass, each brother learns, is always greener. There is a nice parallel in Grace and Sam's two young daughters--the older one feels that everyone loves her younger sister better and that she gets all the attention. Despite the efforts of the make-up and wardrobe crews, giving Portman awful blonde highlights and making her wear an unflattering, baggy, light pink roll-neck jumper for much of the film, and despite the fact she is in mourning for a large chunk of the film, she still looks gorgeous.

Also, I finally understand why there is a plug for Carey Mulligan's BAFTA nomination for An Education in the print ad for Brothers (which I had thought was an error): she has a minor role in the latter film, playing the wife of one of Sam's fellow soldiers. With her long, blonde hair and American accent, she was almost unrecognisable after her role of gamina maxima in An Education...

There aren't many women in A Prophet. I can only think of one--Djamila, the wife of the main character Malik's surrogate brother Ryad. Malik is sentenced to six years for an unnamed offence and soon discovers that being an Arab in this particular prison ain't a whole barrel of laughs. He gets beaten up by the Corsican mafia (there is even a minor character called Corleone), who tell him he has to kill another prisoner or they will kill him. Although he then falls under the protection of the head honcho Luciani, he is never accepted into the posse and is usually forced to clear up after the other guys, make them coffee and run errands. On the other hand, his fellow Arab prisoners do not trust him because he is in with the Corsicans.

The Corsican threw me for a moment--as the film was subtitled, it isn't immediately obvious to a non-linguist when the characters switch languages. I'm not an expert in the Corsican language but it sounded a lot like Sardinian, which I do know a little about--Sardinian is one of the most archaic forms of Italian and uses a lot of forms that are much closer to Latin than in the standard language.

As the film progresses (and although it was 2h30 long, it made those minutes count and it certainly didn't drag--not when you have a scene where a carotid artery is pierced so suddenly that a huge jet of projectile blood materialises without any warning, which led to much shrieking among many audience members), Malik works his way up the prison hierarchy but it's only when he makes friends with Ryad that he starts to hope for a new life on the outside. Ryad, a cancer survivor, is soon to be released and once he is on the outside, he begins to help Malik out when the latter is allowed "leave" days, thanks to Luciani who wants Malik to carry out various "business" tasks for him. Malik soon sees the difference between his real friendship with Ryad and his fair-weather, bullied relationship with Luciani.

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