'A Prophet' honoured in his country

Jacques Audiard's powerful prison drama "Un Prophete" (A Prophet) swept the board at the "Cesar" awards on Saturday, picking up the best film, best actor and best director prizes at France's annual version of the Oscars.

"A Prophet", one of the outstanding films at last year's Cannes film festival, was named as best foreign film at the BAFTA awards last week and is in the running in the same category at the Academy Awards on March 7.

A dark tale of a young, illiterate petty criminal who gardually climbs up a brutal prison hierarchy, "A Prophet" took nine awards on the night, leaving little for the rest of the field.

Audiard, whose previous films include "De battre mon coeur s'est arrete" (The Beat My Heart Skipped), picked up the best director award, while the film's star Tahar Rahim, took both the award for best actor and best newcomer.

Niels Arestrup also won the prize for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the old-style Corsican gang boss who offers patronage to the humble and submissive young greenhorn who ends up turning the tables on him.

Audiard paid tribute to the numerous former prisoners who appeared as extras in the film and helped to create its grimly realistic atmosphere.

"We had a really exceptional cast of extras. They forced us to do something exceptional," he said.

The best actress award went to Isabelle Adjani, one of France's biggest stars, who collected her fifth Cesar playing against her glamorous image to portray a dowdy teacher facing breakdown in "La journee de la jupe" (Skirt Day).

The Cesar awards provide French cinema with one of its yearly highlights, a star-studded night of glory and gushing tributes, which is often mocked as a local industry love-in which rewards arthouse films nobody watches.

"A Prophet", a major box office success in France is an exception and the film has also attracted widespread critical success outside its home market.

With over 200 million entries, cinema attendance in France last year was at its highest level since 1982, with local productions accounting for 37 percent of the total.

Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford, who was awarded a special lifetime achievement award, added a touch of international glamour to the event.

But it was otherwise a resolutely French affair, with the traditional package of tears, long speeches, jokes and sketches of varying success.

The ceremony also included a tribute to Eric Rohmer, the pioneer of the French "New Wave" which transformed cinema in the 1950s and 60s, who continued making films until not long before his death last month at the age of 89.