(Video on Demand, June 2013) If you feel that there’s been a dearth of desert-adventure films out there, then take heart in Day of the Falcon’s existence and enjoy a trip to 1930s Arabia for an old-fashioned epic. Tahar Rahim stars as Prince Auda, a bookworm son who eventually learns to lead an army and uphold progressive values at a time when the West is taking an interest in the oil reserves under the sand. A co-production involving four countries, Day of the Falcon has a decent budget and a refreshingly earnest viewpoint toward traditional values in the face of western imperialism. Directed with competence by veteran French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film can be enjoyed for its epic scope, interesting visuals and sympathetic characters. It’s hardly perfect: there are a few pacing issues, and as much as I like Mark Strong and Antonio Banderas, casting them as warring emirs feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity for ethnicity-appropriate actors. (The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Freida Pinto, except that she’s sultry enough to make anyone believe that the hero would wage all-out war simply in order to come back home to her.) Historical parallels with the early days of Saudi Arabia are interesting (albeit not to be taken at face value) and so is the obvious commentary on the dominance of the oil industry in the region. Parallels with Lawrence of Arabia are obvious, especially considering that the film offers a few desert-war sequences not commonly seen elsewhere in movies. The stilted dialogues and acting definitely take a back seat to sweep of the film’s adventure. For a film that probably flew under the radar of most north-American moviegoers, Day of the Falcon definitely qualifies as an underappreciated gem.
(On DVD, September 2011) A lengthy but rarely uninteresting sit at nearly two hours and a half, Un Prophète is essentially a look at the life of a young Arab man during his year-long incarceration in a French prison. It plays out quite a bit more entertainingly that a simple statement of the premise will suggest, though: Within moments, our protagonist is manipulated by a bunch of Corsican prisonners into murdering an incarcerated witness, and the protection he earns in this fashion propels the rest of the action. Part of the film’s pleasure is seeing the quasi-defenseless protagonist, ably played by Tahar Rahim, grow into a wheeler, schemer and eventually win over his opponents. After a few disjointed minutes in which the quasi-documentary cinematography calls attention to itself, the film’s narrative arc progresses along nicely, adding and removing threats as it advances. It makes for compelling viewing, especially as the film moves away from its initially bleak and uncompromising tone to a somewhat more hopeful conclusion. Less happily, the film occasionally indulges into a bit of magical realism in which reality is bent to ghostly advice and artful foreshadowing (hence the title) –much hidden depth is suggested by the film’s artful flourishes, but it does take away from the more reality-based bulk of the film. Still, that’s not enough to take away much of the impact of this big, full, engrossing film: Un prophète is a look at a reality most will hopefully never experience, but it’s also a terrific story about someone working with the cards he’s been given. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the non-judgement of the camera –the criminal as a hero, obviously, with the disappearance of his ghostly conscience a minor loss when he manages to work the system to his end. The final images of the film suggest that a happy life will never be possible, and that he will always be followed no matter how he tries to escape. Deservedly nominated for an Oscar, Un Prophete offers a dazzling mix of allegory, thematic depth and pure old-fashioned storytelling. It’s worth the sit.