By Alan Champion
In 2001, following the apocalyptic fallout from the terrorists attack – by 19 hijackers of Arab lineage, affiliated with al-Qaeda – of the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and, in a failed, attempt to atomize, either, the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland or one of several nuclear power plants along the eastern seaboard – at the height of American/global condemnation/anti-Arab/Muslim sentiment, in 2009, with the release of A Prophet, Tahar Rahim, nonetheless, wooed, mesmerized, and took the world by surprise/storm as the 19 year old, incarcerated, Franco-Algerian youth, Malik El Djebena, turned hardened criminal, in a seminal, unparalleled, groundbreaking role/personification that rivaled Al Pacino in his epochal portrayal of Michael Corleone, and, his bloodthirsty ascendancy to becoming Godfather, following his father’s, Don Corleone’s death, (in The Godfather), and/or Brad Davis’ in his unsurpassable/phenomenal incarnation of Billy Hayes, a naive, credulous, young adult, most likely on summer break from college, who’s, imprisoned in a deplorable, precarious Turkish jail for drug procession, where its warden/guards are more direful/ominous than its prisoners, forcing Billy to depend solely on instincts and primal/visceral, barbarous compulsions to endure/survive his macabre/perilous vicissitudes in Midnight Express – while, serving a six-year sentence for assaulting police officers in a maximum prison in Brecourt, where he must either become harden, menacing and cutthroat or succumb to the scum of the earth.
Ultimately, Malik capitulates to the wishes of one of two gangs – the Corsicans and Muslims – inside the prison as he hasn’t any friends or enemies at this point inside the prison, but, the head of the Corsican inmates, a Mafioso named César Luciani, co-opts Malik for his dirty work – like killing the Muslim, Reyeb, in turn, for his protection, and has plans for him on the outside. Malik can only acquiesce, but, it causes envy throughout the hierarchical ranks, but, Malik, who learns to read by a friend/fellow inmate, Ryad, survives, while concentrating on his life after prison, wherein, he continues to work in César’s illicit casino business, while, trafficking drugs, and, climbing up the ranks in César’s mafia. Upon his discharge from prison, we espy Malik El Djebena, once a callow, pubertal youth, but, now, a disheartened, transubstantiated man, with a deleterious, nefarious, bloodthirsty heart. A Prophet garnered critical acclaim and innumerable, prestigious awards, akin to: the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival; the Best Film Award at the 53rd London Film Festival; the Prix Louis Delluc 2009 at the 63rd British Academy Film Awards; a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language; and, was nominated for 13 César Awards, tying it with three other films for the most nominations of any film in César history, winning 9 Césars including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. A PROPHET was also nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics; it won London’s Favourite French Film award in 2010, as well as Best Foreign Film at the 13th annual British Independent Film Awards.
Although A Prophet didn’t win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009, it lost to “The Secret in Their Eyes” by Juan Jose Campanella; I personally believe that it should have been nominated for the Oscar in the Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor categories.
The meritorious beneficiary of instantaneous fame, since that first, inimitable milestone, Rahim has appeared in numerous films/television shows – usually three-to-four, annually, since A Prophet, and his singularly extraordinary, transcendent, “tour de force” talents can be espied 12 years later, as the contemptibly, fiendish, unscrupulous, demoniacal monstrosity, yet, tantalizingly, magnetic, seductive, headliner, Charles Sobhraj, in Netflix’s dark, gruesome, macabre, eight-part, limited series, The Serpent – based on the real-life of Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj, known as the “Bikini Killer,” “Splitting Killer” and the “Serpent,” who, is a hybridized, Indian and Vietnamese of French citizenry, who, pillaged – as a thief, mountebank and serial killer, preying on hipsters and bohemians – throughout the Hippie Trail of Southeast Asia during the heydays of the 1970s. An irrepressibly enticing, bewildering and grisly series – admittedly, the war, criminal and murder genres aren’t, usually, my forte, as I am more of the type that likes to witness man at his most magnanimous, enlightened and magnificent, but, Mr. Rahim as Sobhraj, lulled, captivated, beguiled and ensnared me – and his mesmerized/captivated, worldwide audience as well – “The series remained within the Netflix’s Top 10 all week, standing at the top of Netflix’s Top 10 in countries including the U.S., Canada, Australia, Denmark and Belgium on April 9. The series already broke viewing records in the U.K. when it first aired in January 2021 on the BBC.” ~ Sheena Scott, Contributor, Hollywood and Entertainment – into his cadaverous web of intrigue/slaughter, with his wonted, spiral of seduction, mechanization, prevarication and murder – as he was accused of killing over a dozen individuals – which, would leave any other, less proficient/adroit actor, and his sequential, manifold murders – alongside the viewing audience – onerously predicative and perchance, irksome, but, Mr. Rahim tackles the role, bringing each interface with potential victims, and their causatum murder, incalculable, unforeseeable, and stupefying. Based on a real-life character, Tahar Rahim embodies and reincarnates Sobhraj; breathing life into this heterodox, dichotomous duality, imbuing an aberrant, pathologic, manipulative topsy-turviness/disarrangement, but, also, a charismatic, fascinatingly astute, psyche and bewitching persona.
More than just another murder/crime yarn/chronicle, The Serpent is at best a psychological thriller, with “Cat & Mouse” labyrithinic chases, pursuits and gruesomely bloodletting, carnage and cold-hearted executions, whereby, Mr. Sobhraj – a half-breed, half-caste – miscegenetic, amalgam or a hybridized, mongrelized abomination, no different than that of a bastardized, Mulatto anomaly and outcast – disdains and repudiates his lowly plight in life, and, in order to cope best with systemic/skewed bias, he’s, paradoxically, reformulated, reverted and shifted the pathology of raciality, directed at him, on to it’s subjugators, by insisting that he’s even more entitled to those advantages whites deem are their prerogative/birthright – simply because they are “white.”
Correspondingly, Sobhraj, who has experienced the insufferable hardship/torment of racial discrimination, alienation and disenfranchisement, throughout his formative years, is indomitable/obdurate in attaining avengement, redress and his deemed, “proper” ranking/ascendancy, by seizing every opportunity to subdue and subjugate whites, and, after leveling the playing field, with him achieving a sense of emancipation and equability, he persecutes them, by drugging, strangling, burning, bludgeoning and annihilating them; exorcising the “white devil” to confiscate their passports, enabling him to travel and cash their travelers checks, providing him capital to purchase ratified gems stones, which, he sells to swinish, white proprietors for exorbitant outlays/expenditure, so that he can acculturate the lifestyle he perceives as those of his archenemy – aristocratic/Plutocratic white people – as we, his stupefied audience wait, watch and behold, with bated breath as his demoniacal acts unfold, but, only with the secours/underpinning of his nefarious, coconspirators, Marie, Sobhraj’s loyal assistant – or besotted, “indentured servant” or his “secretary” or “wife,” depending on the circumstances, and, that of Ajay Chowdhury’s, a lower-caste, obsequious scoundrel/miscreant, as he draws on his flagitious acuity, calloused street smarts and deadly perspicacity to choose his next, unwitting, blundering, fleeceable victim to seduce, metamorphose into – embodying their quintessence, and, masquerading their penurious/pauperized lifestyle as he drugs them until they are lassitudinous, lethargic and incoherent, and, then, he turns on them, robbing their processions, and eradicates them.
Like the cunning/wily,Green Anaconda, the largest of serpents, he sinuously meanders, twisting circuitously, and, hypnotizes his prey as he wraps/coils his scaly, cold-blooded body around it, squeezing, asphyxiating and choking the very life out of it, and then, swallowing his ravin, whole… Unmerciful, conniving, Sobhraj machinates, masquerades and adapts to his surroundings/circumstances, cognizing that although vicissitudes may change, people don’t, and it is this singular independent variable that enables him to continue his hateful/merciless, homicidal purge – which – by happenstance – with grisly deaths/murders of two Dutch citizens – Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker – is brought to bear, and, to the attention of Dutch Undersecretary, Herman Knippenberg, at its embassy in Nepal, who, alongside an array of corroborators, akin to his wife, Angela Knippenberg, both of whom, morph into blundering/maladroit sleuths/bird dogs, and, become as obsessed and addicted to the putrid/fetid scent of Sobhraj, staying on his trail until they see him imprisoned – quite similar to his smitten, cozened and befuddled audience.
Yet, perhaps, a pivotal indicator, prognosticator and foreshadowing of Sobhraj’s either, overblown ego or evolving/oncoming bedlam and psychiatric disorder – and, perchance, his culminating, “Devil May Care” audacious behaviors – in 1976, while in New Delhi, Sobhraj chose a group of French postgraduate students, numbering near 30, as his next target/victim after convincing them that he should be their tour guide. The thought of confiscating 30 passports, may’ve misguided/deluded him, but, he gave them poisoned pills, and, told them, that they were an anti-dysentery medicine, and as the students convulsed and lost consciousness, he tried to escape, but, a few students managed to wrestle him to the ground, and called in the police, who, arrested him, and, during his interrogation, his accomplices/coconspirators confessed that he was the mastermind behind Solomon’s murder, and they were all sent to Tihar Jail, awaiting a formal trial, of which, Richard Warlow, The Serpent’s screenwriter, perfects – capturing its lopsided, askew elements – while, infusing it with Charles Sobhraj’s frenzied, pulsating adrenaline, compulsion and belief in his invincibility and impenetrableness.
Aside from these masterful/inestimable performances, each episode, regardless the country where the crime takes place, ushers the audience into a social/cultural anthropological dig or a kaleidoscopic global pilgrimage/travelogue of varied topographies, customs and perspicacities as our nefarious antagonists scrutinize/scour the earthen terrain for unsuspecting, gullible prey.
The Serpents’ inimitable, incogitable “tour de force” ensemble cast include: Charles Sobhraj’s eye-filling/pulchritudinous, servile/subservient, yet, dilemmatical, “secretary/wife,” Marie-Andree Leclerc, is adeptly characterized by Jenna Coleman; Sobhraj’s accomplice/partner in crime – the sycophantish/unctuous, Ajay Chowdhury, who’ll kill, malign and torture victims at Sobhraj’s command, but, who, cowers, kowtows, and, timorously collapses/caves-in at his boss’ acrimonious disapproval, perturbance or agitation, is lissomely, portrayed by Amesh Edireweera; Herman Knippenberg, who’s the Dutch Undersecretary, and, who, sidelines as a fumbling/maladroit, sleuthhound/gumshoe, is consummately portrayed by Billy Howle; his wife, Angela, who, devotedly assists him, until, she’s just had enough, is brilliantly incarnated by Ellie Bamber; Nadine Gires as the French sleuth, characterized by Mathilde Warnier is audacious, valiant and risk-taking; Siemons, the man’s, whose ready to just shot the bastard, is winningly portrayed by Tim McInnerny, alongside, a slew of support characters, who masterly, portray police officers, diplomats/assistants, secretaries, jewelers, compatriots and, of course, Sobhraj’s unwitting victims/prey.
But, its Tahar Rahim, who characterizes and reincarnates the pathological, misfit – who, ironically, becomes his own victim of internalized racism, and, an oversized ego – but, vengeful, master at deceit and machination, Charles Sobhraj – whose, murderous, labyrithinic purge would’ve become redundant/repetitious had any other less astute, perspicacious and/or unskilled actor attempted it – is an intricate, heterogeneous aggregation of a character with a past that beleaguers, haunts and bedevils him, and, a present that enables him to avenge his angst over his mixed heritage, caste and impecuniousness. Once again, Tahar Rahim has precisely objectified, hypostatized, and exteriorized the character of Charles Sobhraj – he is Sobhraj, in a coup de maitre fashion.
The circuitous, wreathing, reptilian, real-life story of Charles Sobhraj, a murderer, thief and seductive master of intrigue and disguise, whose narcissism, egomaniac and false sense of omnipotence during the 1960-70s, a time of omnipresent social unrest, with naive, countercultural, hippies traveling to Southeastern, Asia to engage in smoking or snorting, exotic, mushrooms/herbally-derivational, psychoactive drugs – aside from prosaic, Cannabis, Coke and LSD – or to escape America’s adamantine conservatism, with legions of “Flower” children seeking a more pacific lifestyle or spurred/incited by Tibetan monks – oppressed by Tibet government forces, who engaged in self-immolation in protest – were ready to convert to Buddhism; these variables/vicissitudes, alongside these counterintuitive turncoats/iconoclasts – who, rejected dominant values and behavior of society – misconceived/misconstrued sense of invincibility, and unfeigned, but, dupable, hope and trust for/in a new world order, made them easy prey as they, to some degree, corroborated/enabled Sobhraj’s grisly onslaught/”Reign Of Terror,” – but, he was, consequently, finally apprehended, charged with multiple murders, and is serving a life sentence in Nepal’s Central Prison in Kathmandu, Nepal, where, as of April 2021, he still remains at the age of 77, in poor health.
In 1979, married couple, Richard Neville and Julie Clark’s book, “On the Trail of the Serpent: the Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj” became a global bestseller, but, as many of the crimes committed by Sobhraj had undergone new developments since their book’s 1979 publication – which narrates events from Sobhraj’s childhood, first marriage and conviction in France, until the late 1970s – a new, 2020 edition of “On the Trail of the Serpent: the Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj” by Julie Clark, one of its original writers as her husband, Neville had deceased in 2016, inspired and was used as a key resource for the BBC-Netflix series of The Serpent, which focuses on Sobhraj’s thefts and murder between 1975-76.
Ergo, this loathsomely unpalatable, but, come-hither and alluring, blood and guts, 8-part series – which, paints a chilling picture of a calculating, yet charismatic scoundrel of a man, who took the lives of young, innocent travelers, without compunction – was penned/scripted by Richard Warlow – who begin working on the series in 2013 – whose adroit dialogue/taciturnity add bone-chilling suspense to this farfetched, but, indisputably, factual, pulsating, heart-stopping crime drama/biopic, which takes place in the 1970’s on the South East Asian “hippie trail. Astutely directed by Tom Shankland, The Serpent is nonlinear, with absorbing, back-and-forth or hither and thither timelines/sequences, which, many found confounding, but, I believe it correlates with Sobhraj’s serpentining, slithering, predatory gait – a modish, Machiavellian/”Jekyll & Hyde” dichotomy – like snakes, they camouflage, advance, recoil, revert, attack… Shankland’s choice of mise en scene, examines, brandishes and ostend the kaleidoscopic, verdant or arid, South Eastern, Asian landscapes, cities, lifestyles and vicissitudes, where Charles Sobhraj Machiavelianly, deceived and slew 12 victims, akin to: Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, India, Nepal, Varanasi, Calcutta, Bangkok and Malaysia as scenic backdrops to his grisly, pandemonious narrative. Considered, but, third-world countries in 1970, today, these cities have prospered and are first-class destinations for tourists. Behind the gory bloodshed, their exposure may have wetted wayfarer’s appetites to go west, “young men and women…”
The Serpent, a beguiling, mesmerizing 8-episode, limited series was commissioned by BBC One, and created by Mammoth Screen, part of ITV Studios, and is a co-production between BBC One and Netflix.