French crime drama A Prophet (Un Prophète) has been positioned by critics and festival panel members alike as being one of 2010’s films to watch. Besides being France’s selection for the Academy Awards, it garnered great praise from both Cannes and London film festivals, winning the Grand Prize at the former, and the Best Film award at the latter. Well, those amassed opinions aren’t wrong, because A Prophet is certainly the first great film of 2010 – a singularly gripping crime thriller told with freshness, depth and grace.
Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a complete nobody. Landed with a six year sentence for a crime that is of no interest to the plot, the 19-year-old enters prison with nothing apart from a tightly-folded 50 Euro note. He has no family, friends, enemies, vocation or religion. The last detail is important, as the Arab delinquent is thrust into a microcosmic society that mirrors the French melting pot, finding inside as markedly divisive as outside, with gangs delineated by colour of skin and background.
Overwhelmed by the aggressive surroundings, Malik ends up cajoled into working for Corsican mafia boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), starting with one little task – murdering a Muslim inmate.
From the off, A Prophet fizzles with tension and engrossing action, with director Jacques Audiard cooking up an aesthetic that manages to be immediately visceral, yet not overly breathless. The prison is a hell-hole, and life there isn’t much better; break time on the yard brings beatings, and the shower room is alight with requests for oral sex, whispered without innuendo through gaping holes in the graffiti-strewn stalls.
The brief is clear: Malik must grow and adapt, and he does. He learns to read, to flip razor blades with his tongue, and to speak with confidence and courage. Ambitious, he picks up the Corsican language, and develops a strategist’s eye and a master criminal’s instinct, eventually building a power base of his own.
Such a change is nothing new to the crime genre, in fact, such rags-to-riches tales are everywhere, but there is a tenderness to Tahar Rahim’s performance that sticks throughout. It is no easy sell to take a character from mumbling zero to overly cocky antihero, but he pulls this off without ever losing the audience’s sympathy.
That this works so well is, no doubt, helped by Audiard’s melding of genre conventions and stylistic flourishes. Throughout, the camerawork is stark and effective, full of sharp focus, tight framing and just enough handheld movement to make the proceedings tangible and naturalistic. However, this approach often peels back to reveal dream sequences, and waking nightmares – of guilt, remorse or momentary madness – that tip the toes of A Prophet in the waters of poetic realism and psychological expressionism.
Malik’s first victim appears frequently, throat gaping open with his mortal wound, offering not morality rants, but lessons and guidance – not so much a ghost of vengeance, but a guiding angel, if no less haunting.
These figurative flights make the fact that Malik leads something a charmed life easier to swallow. True, he ends the film – and his six year incarceration – with much more than when he entered the prison, but the film achieves a discordant, ambiguous depth that places it far above more direct, adrenaline-rush thrillers.
Part of this is down to Malik’s portrayal, and the intimacy that Rahim brings to the role. The audience cannot help but revel in the boy’s successes and progress, but this is tainted by the gnawing decay of his descent into crime, as he sets up his own drug trade, and convinces a rehabilitated ex-inmate to turn his back on the straight life.
This loss of innocence is a road well-trodden, seen in such classic crime films as The Godfather, Scarface and Once Upon A Time In America, but Audiard’s film is made distinct by its graceful mixture of the sombre, the gritty and the complicated, as well as its canny use of its central, key location.
This is a prison-bound crime epic, where role model cum bully Luciani – played with boisterous gall and an inevitably tragic sadness by Arestrup, sporting a shock of combed-back white-blonde hair – is not outgrown with a gunshot, but with an awkward dismissal and a punch in the stomach. And the eventual release is not greeted with emotional fireworks, but a playfully constructed scene as Malik departs with a girl and a child – neither of which are his own – calmly walking with a motorcade of ominous associates in tow.
A Prophet is an early contender for 2010’s best film. It successfully marries engaging entertainment with art-house sensibilities in a way that few films do of late, maintaining intelligent complexity and thematic richness, while making its 155 minutes undulate and fly without sagging. It achieves all this without ever becoming predictable, or easy to pin down. It is a Mafioso success story bound within prison walls, a gory post-Scorsese meditation on crime and religion, a social metaphor for multiculturalism gone awry.
A Prophet, like Malik, who dabbles in multiple gangs, and converses in French, Corsican and Arabic throughout, straddles many worlds, but keeps its composure at all times.
A Prophet opens Friday, January 22nd in the UK.