You’d be easily forgiven if you didn’t make an immediate connection between Niels Arestrup the grizzled veteran and the fresh faced, pretty boy featured in Chantal Akerman’s 1974 classic I, You, He, She or the many other French films where Arestrup used his youthful good looks to his advantage. Jacques Audiard has twice now employed the weathered face and cold eyes of Arestrup’s present appearance to personify heartless, dangerous men with zero moral standing. In The Beat My Heart Skipped he played a drunk, cowardly, deadbeat, nightmare of a father who convinces his son (Romain Duris) to help him collect on his debts and gets him mixed up in an underworld that doesn’t give friendly introductions. In A Prophet Arestrup reappears as Cesar Luciani, the ruthless Corsican prison boss that takes the film’s lead Malik, on as his young protégé. Both roles earned the veteran actor a Cesar, the equivalent of an Academy Award in his home country.
Simply put Cesar Luciani is a man you don’t question, you don’t talk back to and you certainly don’t fuck with. When he tells Malik that he must kill a man in his cellblock or he will kill Malik there isn’t a single moment of doubt that his fate has been decided. Cesar is a man of confidence, a prison lifer who still has ties to the outside world and acts as if his imprisonment is just an irritating handicap to conducting business. He carries himself with a masculine swagger that clears lanes as he walks the prison’s halls despite his Napoleon-like stature. He is a cruel man that has learned to do anything necessary to get results. The film’s brutal portrayal of life inside this cement box is so visceral that it can be difficult to watch. There were scenes, at least one involving Cesar, that I had to briefly look away from. But it is precisely these kinds of scenes that buy Audiard so much credibility with viewers, especially when his actors so fully inhabit their characters that you would have no trouble believing they’d spent a good portion of their lives locked within the confines of this prison.
As the film tracks Malik’s unlikely rise and Cesar’s inevitable fall there is always a palpable sense of danger. Cesar’s menacing looks never let you relax and you fear Malik may make that one crucial mistake that pushes him into a violent conclusion. Which is why there is a moment of slight satisfaction when you see an utterly defeated Cesar sitting in the grey square, surrounded by snow and ice, completely alone. There are no words necessary, Arestrup’s face tells you everything you need to know about a man being forced to face the consuming emptiness that will haunt the remainder of his life. Niels Arestrup has grown into that rare breed of actor who is so compelling you would pay good money just to watch him sit and smoke a cigarette or read a book. I know I would.