Nineteen year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives in a Parisian prison for a petty crime with a six year sentence and no friends. When he is offered hash for sex by Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), Malik protests loudly, but the incident grabs the attention of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," as memorable as Rahim's lead), the head of one of two prison gangs. The external boss of those all powerful Corsicans wants Reyeb, an upcoming trial witness, rubbed out. Malik is forced to kill one of his own, but it begins the rise of a wily survivor whose portentous dreams will find him labelled "A Prophet."
Cowriter (with Thomas Bidegain)/director Jacques Audiard, whose last two films ("Read My Lips," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped") were backgrounded in criminal activity, brings the world of the criminal front and center in this epic prison drama. Malik's character arc recalls Michael Corleone's in "The Godfather," and the inexperienced actor who plays him has an intensity that rivals Pacino's. But Michael Corleone had an entire support structure in place where Malik develops one true friend who just may be dying of testicular cancer (and another who has already died). "A Prophet" is a tour de force and if Audiard was a director to watch before he has now arrived.
In prison, Malik is between two worlds. He is despised by the Arabs as a Corsican, and, while he is inducted into the Corsican clan and given their protection, is looked down upon by them as little more than a dog, and one that can do their menial labor at that. Malik spends a lot of time cleaning up and making coffee and being dismissed. But he's observant. Before his messy hit on Reyeb, the older man advised Malik that one should always come out of prison smarter than one went in and the illiterate Malik follows his advice. At a reading class, Malik meets Ryad (Adel Bencherif, "Frontière(s)") just after having a nightmare on the first anniversary of Reyeb's death (in a luminous scene, Reyeb appears with the tip of his finger on fire, like a birthday candle - the murdered man is oddly and beautifully more of a spirit guide than an ominous presence).
Audiard has chaptered his film with titles like 'Eyes and Ears' or 'Economics,' although they are not neatly divided - some are long, others short. Gradually Malik gains power as he gains more and more of Luciani's trust. He's made a porter, which gains him privileges like being moved next to the boss and the ability to speak to prisoners across dividing lines. He meets Jordi (Reda Kateb) and forms an independent relationship. When good behavior gains him leave rights, they are claimed by Luciani for his business, but Malik, although initially quite taken by things like his first airplane ride, is shrewd enough to develop his own business and means of post-incarceration living. Luciani may know more than Malik thinks, but Malik's moves are confidently audacious. The filmmakers choreograph Malik's final plunge of stake into the ground with breathtaking flourish then cap that with a deceptively simple coda which melds many cultural rites into something entirely fresh. Malik is a 'made' man who has created himself.
The film has a gritty, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants documentary style that perfectly suits the story. Small stylistic grace notes - fantastical and cinematic both - are organically woven into the whole. The film is the story of a man from the streets raised to operatic, and even biblical, levels. Niels Arestrup's Luciani, whose arc is the mirror opposite of Malik's, is another strong and memorable character - a mentor, a
The film, which just swept France's Cesar awards (Best Film, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Cinematography...) is the film which should win the Foreign Language Oscar, but which the notoriously conservative and sentimental voting pool will probably find too violent. It's deserving to be remembered again this year.
Robin did not see this film.
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