Is ‘A Prophet’s’ Tahar Rahim the next Al Pacino?


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As The Times’ Kenneth Turan so ably points out in his review of the Cannes Film Festival-anointed gangster-drama “A Prophet” (“Un Prophète”), the movie was already a “phenomenon” even before it arrived in the U.S. last week.

One of five nominees currently in the running for a best foreign language film Oscar, the baroque and enthralling French prison movie -- which follows a 19-year-old French Arab sentenced to six years of hard time in a Parisian prison, where he rises through the ranks of power in the Corsican mafia -- picked up a British BAFTA award and a Golden Globe nomination, while a “Sight & Sound” poll of 60 critics around the world named “A Prophet” 2009’s best film.


Art house audiences have apparently taken notice of that groundswell of international critic love. In limited release, booked in only nine theaters across North America, the movie grossed a robust $170,000 over its opening weekend.

Central to that kind of box-office mojo here and around the world has been “A Prophet’s” young star, newcomer Tahar Rahim. The 28-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent won two Cesars (the French equivalent to the Oscars) for best actor and most promising actor over the weekend (the film also won for best picture and best director).

And in review after glowing review, Rahim has been compared to no less than a young Al Pacino in the first installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy. In their respective roles, both leading men burst onto the screen exuding a kind of physical meekness that belies the force of character their characters come to embody as mob dons. Never mind that Rahim’s highest-profile project to date had been a role in “La Commune,” a French miniseries with a beyond negligible Q-rating in the States -- his “Prophet” role is the kind of breakthrough star turn that’s sure to be thrown even more into dramatic focus come Oscar weekend.

For his part, the actor rejects the comparison out of hand, exclaiming (in heavily accented Franglais in a recent interview with 24 Frames): “It’s too much. People are using comparisons that are not possible. This guy has changed so much in cinema and I’ve just made one movie. He’s a genius.”

But according to “A Prophet’s” writer-director, the French crime genre maestro Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “Read My Lips”), who interviewed 40 actors before giving Rahim the role and, moreover, who is credited with handing such French dramatic stalwarts as Vincent Cassel breakthrough parts -- Rahim’s ambiguous ethnicity and pronounced youthfulness gave him a leg up on the competition.

“There’s a very juvenile quality to him,” said Audiard (who, interestingly enough, calls the movie his ‘anti-’Scarface’ ’). “And he’s not physically very Arabic. He’s not an exact Arabic type. He could be Spanish. He’s a very young actor and he had to learn a lot for a very complicated part that was hard to make realistic.” (You can read more about Audiard’s process making ‘A Prophet’ in this recent Sunday Calendar story.)

Then, consider who’s got Rahim’s back in Hollywood. On the heels of “A Prophet’s” grand jury prize win at Cannes last May, he signed with Creative Artists Agency’s international movie star specialist Hylda Queally. The Irish-born industry heavyweight is currently responsible for stewarding the careers of such global movie icons as Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Cate Blanchett, among others.

For his next project, “The Eagle of the Ninth,’ directed by “The Last King of Scotland” helmer Kevin Macdonald, Rahim changed gears to appear opposite Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. “I’m the baddie,” Rahim said between drags of on a Camel Light, seated in the Beverly Hills back yard of the French consul general. “He’s the prince of an ancient Gallic tribe. I’m talking in ancient Gallic -- it was hard.”

And last week, the actor signed on to appear in ‘Bitch,’ the romantic-drama from one of China’s most controversial directors, Lou Ye. The film reportedly follows a Frenchman (Rahim) whose Chinese lover follows him to Paris, leading to ‘an intense love addiction.’ Shooting is set to begin this month with an eye toward landing a spot in the Cannes 2011 line-up.

Rahim described his experience on “A Prophet” as having given him the chance to grow up, “emotionally, professionally, in every way.” And Rahim said he would have no compunction about reprising his role as Malik El Djebena in the all but inevitable sequel.

“I would like to work again with Jacques,” Rahim said, cracking into a huge smile at the thought. “If it’s another time with Malik’s character, that would be great. Me too -- I would like to know what happens to him!”

-- Chris Lee