A Prophet (Un prophète)
Jacques Audiard, who has long been considered a French master, takes his work in a completely new direction with his latest project A Prophet. While I was extremely happy with his previous style (The Beat My Heart Skipped, still ranks in my top ten favorite movies of all time), his new focus is infinitely more broad, and brings a new sense of realism to the table that I could stare at for hours (and ended up doing just that since the film runs around 150 minutes).
What’s more impressive, is that Audiard co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain. His story is a gritty, and brilliant look at the French prison system (which the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly condemned, and Nicolas Sarkozy himself called a national disgrace). It centers around a young Arab man, Malik. At nineteen, he’s been sentenced to six years for assaulting an officer. It’s never clear if he actually did the crime. In fact the matter is settled by one indignant response to the accusation by a prison guard, he claims not to have done a thing. Whether or not he did is of no consequence to the rest of the film, but it seems to me he’s innocent, which makes his evolution into a crime boss in his own respect that much more interesting. Malik is played by a virtually unknown actor named Tahar Rahim. His performance is remarkable in all aspects. The film spans six years (where Malik ages 19 to 25). His physical performance is remarkable, as he seems to mature quite rapidly. His face is in a constant state of healing, whether it’s his cheek bleeding where a razor blade was hidden, or the marks of a spoon shoved so far into his eyeball, he temporarily loses his vision. Audiard, who frequently enjoys working with some of the best actors in France, couldn’t have asked for a better leading man.
Quickly after arriving at the prison, he is chosen by Cesar (an outstanding Niels Arestrup) to kill an inmate. Cesar runs the prison with his gang of Corsicans, money to pay people off, and prison guards under his thumb. While Malik tries to get out of the assignment, he ends up doing the deed, in what is surely the film’s most graphic moment (most certainly not for the faint of heart). This puts Malik under Cesar’s protection, although being an Arab, he’s never really allowed to join the gang of white men, and ends up cleaning their cells and making them coffee.
From here on out, the story watches Malik as he gains more and more power, sharpens his entrepreneurial skills, working all sides, and getting himself an education. Not only does he learn to read and write, but he teaches himself Italian. Audiard fills the film with fantastic little touches that make watching A Prophet a joy. The man Malik kills, Reyeb, becomes Malik’s cellmate, a constant reminder of how all his success starts. Reyeb doesn’t bother preaching, or chiding Malik because of his antics, or even for the fact he murdered him, but rather sits in the corner and smokes a cigarette out of the hole Malik made in his throat. Music, as in all of Audiard’s films, plays a huge part here. It doesn’t overwhelm the film, but compliments the mood, and tone that are set, while making itself scarce when it doesn’t add anything.
Audiard certainly owes a great debt to American gangster classics also staged behind bars. But with all his style, attention to detail, and well-paced storytelling, A Prophet not only stands on its own, but clearly etches out a place for itself as a masterpiece of French cinema.