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French prison thriller hailed in Cannes

 Director Jacques Audiard (C) poses with cast members Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim during a photocall for the film
Director Jacques Audiard (C) poses with cast members Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim during a photocall for the film 'Un Prophete' at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
— image credit: Reuters

By James Mackenzie

CANNES, France (Reuters) - French director Jacques Audiard was hailed at the Cannes film festival on Saturday for his grittily realistic prison thriller "A Prophet."

The film shows the gradual rise of a young prisoner and gives an unsparing picture of life in the rundown French jail system, whose bad conditions have prompted a wave of protests by jail staff in recent weeks.

However, Audiard, whose previous films include "De battre mon coeur s'est arrete" (The Beat my Heart Skipped) said his intent had been to make a thriller, not a social documentary or an attack the prison system.

"What interested me was taking a prison as a metaphor for society," he told a press conference after the film's loudly applauded first screening at Cannes.

"But I wasn't interested in denouncing anything, that would have taken me somewhere else. I really wanted to make a genre film with actors that weren't known," he said.

"Something like 'Liberty Valence' without John Wayne."

"A Prophet," the first French entry to show in this year's competition, tells the story of Malik El Djebena, a homeless and illiterate 19-year-old at the mercy of a Corsican gang that controls the jail where he is imprisoned.

Switching between French, Corsican dialect and Arabic, the film follows Malik, played by newcomer Tahar Rahim as he manipulates a power struggle between the old-school Corsican gang and increasingly assertive Muslim rivals.

Shot in a special set outside Paris, "A Prophet" is at pains to avoid the cliches of generations of prison stories while obeying several conventions of a genre that has been popular in France since the days of Victor Hugo in the 19th century.

Although Audiard said his intention had not been to present a cultural or social analysis, the film reflects a number of themes that have attracted wide attention in France, including the tensions associated with poor Muslim immigrants.

"I was interested in doing a film where there were idioms, that aren't understood, things that close off groups from others," he said.

"There was also this idea of an established structure getting older with new groups arriving with other cultures, other languages, other customs."

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