A Prophet

2010-04-12 15:01
A Prophet

What it's about:

Malik El Djebena, 19, is incarcerated at a maximum security prison for six years after his conviction for assaulting a police officer. There he learns that, despite being surrounded by thousands of fellow inmates, he is alone. Cesar Luciani, influential don of the Corsican gang, sees Malik's value to his own cause and ropes him into his flock, an opportunity Malik exploits to gain what every prisoner needs to survive – power. 

What we thought:

Gritty, intense and utterly, wonderfully exhausting, A Prophet is a French movie as far removed from the romanticism and splendor that that concept has come to represent. In many ways, A Prophet is an ugly film, one that primarily takes place within the bleak confines of a male prison where human life is a commodity and violence is its currency. And at the same time, it is a film so rich with humanity and soul-searching, it's hard-won, almost tragic  beauty slowly begins to reveal itself.

Carrying the almost three-hour running time on his shoulders is actor Tahar Rahim, who gives a devastatingly understated performance as the young newbie to the adult justice system after spending his childhood in and out of juvenile detention institutions. His face carries the scars of his hard life, but there is still a child-like fear in his eyes as his lawyer lays down the facts of his latest conviction, as he is searched by prison guards and processed into the system with just the clothes in his back and a 50 franc note. Inside Malik's education begins immediately: he is worthless and needs to keep out of everyone else's way if he wants to survive.

The prison factions are divided along racial and ethnic lines, and Malik doesn't associate himself with any of them. The top dogs are the Corsican mafia, led by the ageing Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who even has the prison warden acting on his orders. Cesar hires Malik to kill another prisoner Reyeb who is awaiting a court appearance as a witness against one of Cesar's associates. Faced with a kill or be killed choice, no choice at all, Malik takes the first step towards not only ensuring his survival in prison, but learning that crime and corruption are the only options he has to achieve this. Under the Corsicans protection, Malik alienates himself from the Arab prisoners, but befriends Ryad (Adel Bencherif) who becomes his ally on the outside.

Jacques Audiard, winner of the Cannes Palm d'Or for this film in 2009 and nominated for a Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Academy Awards, racks up the anxiety and discomfort of watching Malik's transformation during his six-year sentence. With microscopic detail, Audiard expresses every dispiriting truth of life in a modern prison with an uncompromising realism. His actors, many of them inexperienced, some of them actual ex-cons, spent weeks in rehearsal and this dedication to eliciting performances that don’t even feel like acting shows in every scene.

Arestrup plays Cesar like a caged lion, regal and wisened he is always one moment away from detonating with the psychopathic rage he needs to stay at the top. His scenes with Rahim offer a discomforting portrait of a growing father-son relationship that is always on a knife's edge.

A Prophet's power lies in its brutality and despite the almost unbearable realism, Audiard's devotion to portraying a perverse coming-of-age story make A Prophet one of the most potently alive films to have come to these shores in a very long time.

A young Arab man is sent to a French prison where he becomes a mafia kingpin.

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