Somehow I managed to avoid two highly regarded movies when they came out originally. As happens so often with me, if I see that a movie gets a 99 percent fresh rating on rotten tomatoes, my take on the movie will jibe with the 1 percent rotten.
So I finally caught up with them through Netflix and was pleasantly surprised to find both worth renting. The first, “A Prophet”, is basically a prison movie with some similarities to “Scarface” and others in the genre, going back to the original that starred James Cagney. The second is “Waltz with Bashir”, a mixture of animation and documentary that has some interesting things to say about the rotten state of Israel, even though it pulls back from the precipice that divides its makers from the hard core supporters of Palestinian rights in Israel.
The hero of “A Prophet” is Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19 year old North African who we meet on his first day at prison, a venue he has called home for most of his life. From the minute he arrives, he shows no interest in becoming integrated in the Muslim population at the prison and appears to be a loner. His solitary manner comes to the attention of a Corsican mafia gang that rules the prison from the top of the food chain and that is ruled in turn by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), an aging and corpulent capo trying to rule a widespread empire from behind bars.
Luciani’s empire is threatened by a rival gangster of Arab descent named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) who is an adjacent cellblock and is scheduled to testify against him in an upcoming trial. Since no Corsican can get next to him for a hit, Luciani threatens Malik who can. It is his life or Reyeb’s. After Reyeb, who either might be gay or simply decides to opt for same-sex relations while in prison, offers Malik hashish in exchange for a blow job, Luciani instructs him how to conceal a razor blade inside his mouth to use against Reyeb in his cell.
Malik’s successful hit convinces Luciani to recruit him into his Corsican gang behind bars, but at arm’s length. He has him carry out menial tasks and beats him with little provocation as it suits him. Although director Jacques Audiard assures critics that he did not intend to make any kind of political statement in the film, one can hardly ignore the racial dimensions of their relationship.
Malik puts up with the abuse since there are rewards that accompany being a member of the Corsican ruling elite inside prison. He gets access to goods and services that are denied to the Muslim population. In some ways, he is a symbol of the comprador bourgeoisie that has enjoyed a corrupt but privileged status for the past 150 years in places like North Africa.
That being said, this is no “Battle of Algiers”. Instead, it is a stunning psychological study of a man who rises above his humble circumstances to displace Luciani. The story has much more in common with a Jean Genet play than Frantz Fanon but there are enough similarities to persuade you that Algerian screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri had more on his mind than simple crime melodrama.
The Bashir of “Waltz with Bashir” is Bashir Gemayel, the Phalangist warlord whose assassination led to the Sabra-Shatila massacre. Set in 1982 during the first war in Lebanon, the movie’s point of view is that of a group of IDF veterans who recall their participation in anything but the “feel good” militaristic mindset of the officer caste at the top of Israeli society. If anything, it is the Israeli counterpart of a host of Vietnam War movies of which Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” is the best known. More recently, “Hurt Locker” attempts to do the same thing for the Iraq war. Such films never present the point of view of the Vietnamese or the Iraqis, but at least depart from the “good war” consensus of earlier WWII flicks, like “Back to Bataan” that ironically was written by CP’er Ben Barzman, who was blacklisted in the 1950s.
The movie begins with a pack of feral dogs running down a city street who gather beneath the high-rise window of a man who stares down at them in obvious alarm. It turns out this is a recurring dream of the man in the window, Ari Folman—a veteran of the war in Lebanon who is suffering from post-traumatic stress. He has lost his memory of what happened when he was in Lebanon, and particularly his role in the Sabra-Shatila massacre. Folman, it turns out, is also the movie’s producer, director and screenwriter who witnessed the aftermath of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre as a 19 year old Israeli soldier. Afterwards, he went on to a career as a documentary film-maker.
The movie is structured around a series of interviews that Folman (he is represented as an animated figure, but the voice is his own) conducts with other veterans trying to piece together what happened back in 1982 and more specifically if they remember what he did as a soldier. It should be mentioned that this is the same basic plot that is found in “The Dry Land“, a movie that I reviewed in July of this year. The hero, an Iraq war veteran, cannot remember what happened during a brutal firefight that left a comrade gravely wounded and he makes a pilgrimage to the man’s hospital bed in Walter Reed Hospital to learn the truth.
“Waltz for Bashir” is something of a revelation since the IDF is represented for the most part as a bunch of cowardly and debased goons, in the spirit of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”. When a tank is set afire by a Palestinian (or Lebanese—it is not made clear) combatant, the Israelis break ranks and run desperately in all directions. This is a version of Zionist fighters that will scarcely be recognizable to those who have seen “Exodus” or other such propaganda films. Whatever Folman’s intention in making such a film, it would obviously have a corrosive effect on the fighting will of young Israelis. For that, he deserves respect. And this does not begin to address the dramatic power of this movie, which is on a par with some of the great pacifist sagas I have seen throughout my life, including “The Grand Illusion” and “Paths of Glory”.
In the extras portion of the DVD, you can see Folman describing his movie at a Cannes press conference. He is adamant that Israel is the most tolerant society in the world. The proof of that is his ability to make such a film. Of course, he fails to address the question of Palestinian rights within Israel, which are curtailed year by year. He also is emphatic that the movie is good propaganda for the Zionist cause since it makes clear that the Phalangists organized the massacre, even if the Israelis were only enablers. It is quite a commentary on the state of Zionist apologetics that enabling becomes a kind of defense, a case of damning with faint praise if there ever was one.