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Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment (photo)

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At 155 minutes, French prison film “A Prophet” is a long movie. That makes sense: prison is long. To give an audience a taste of what that feels like, a prison movie needs to be long too. It’s awfully tough to capture the feeling of being locked up, alone and isolated, for years or decades, in an hour-and-a-half. So “A Prophet”‘s flaws are ones of focus rather than length. When it narrows in on the harsh realities of this prison, it’s good enough to rank with greats of the genre like Jules Dassin’s “Brute Force,” “Escape From Alcatraz” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” But eventually, the incarcerated hero of “A Prophet” gets a bit comfortable in prison, and at that point, the film does too. Once that happens, all that pent-up nervous energy, all that ethnographic detail about life on the inside, seeps out of the film.

That hero we join on his journey through the French correctional system is named Malik (Tahar Rahim). Before he arrives at prison, he tells his lawyer he didn’t commit the crime — assaulting a police officer — he is about to be imprisoned for. Whether that is true or not, Malik quickly realizes he’ll have to commit acts even worse than that if he’s going to survive. If there’s a single clear message to take away from director Jacques Audiard’s film, it’s that jail doesn’t produce better men, it produces better criminals.

02252010_Prophet2.jpgAt first, Malik is a loner, which makes him an easy target for sneak attacks in the yard from guys looking for a new pair of sneakers. He’s a man with little sense of self — we’ll learn later he dropped out of school at age 11 and never knew his parents — and he has no preconceived allegiance to either of the jail’s two warring factions: the Muslims and the Corsicans, led by César (Niels Arestrup).

César gives the new fish an assignment: gain the trust of a new Muslim prisoner awaiting trial, get close to him with an offer of oral sex, and then murder him during the act with a straight razor he must learn to conceal in his mouth. If Malik refuses, César will have him killed. Faced with no alternative — even the warden is on César’s payroll — Malik goes through with the assassination in a messy, unglamorous, harrowing scene that is one of the film’s best. Afterward, the ghost of Malik’s victim haunts his cell. Malik’s not particularly scared of him — really, he’s just glad to have the company.

After proving his worth, Malik is welcomed into César’s gang, though his Muslim heritage means he’s never fully accepted into the group. Later, he rises up through the Corsican organization in a modern-day, jail-set iteration of old gangster classics like “Scarface” or “The Public Enemy.” And though these scenes are just as well-directed and acted as the earlier ones, they’re lacking in anxiety and danger as Audiard trades in the skillful observations that made the film unique for some set-pieces we’ve seen many times before.

02252010_Prophet3.jpgFrom there, “A Prophet” becomes a bit repetitive. César engineers a work release program for Malik, sending him out on a variety of errands beyond the prison gates, and sending the film off on a perpetual cycle of travel, dirty deeds and return. Repetition can be good for a prison movie — prison life is certainly repetitive — but not if it comes at the expense of its carefully constructed atmosphere of claustrophobia.

This solid, if overhyped, film — it won the Grand Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — works best in those early ethnographic sequences that are so well done that we feel like we’re the ones who’ve been thrown to the wolves, locked inside this world at a point where the end seems like a very long way off.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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