Reviewed by Omid Arabian
What if Tony Montana had never left the detention camp at the beginning of Scarface, but instead had risen to power while doing six years or so behind bars? That's not quite the premise of Jacques Audiard's latest film A Prophet (Un Prophète), but it gives you an idea of the ambitious scope of its story.
Malik (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate Arab boy of 19, lands in a French jail, convicted of assaulting a cop. Very quickly he captures the attention of Cesar (Nils Arestrup), kingpin of the Corsican gang that in effect rules the prison. Cesar wants another Arab prisoner (Rayeb) bumped off, and offers Malik protection in return for doing the deed. Cornered into a kill-or-be-killed situation, Malik reluctantly cuts Rayeb's throat (in an extended, harrowing scene) and in doing so becomes a de-facto member of the powerful Corsican mob.
Malik is at first uncomfortable with being the lowest and only non-Corsican man on the gang totem pole—he's alienated from the other Arabs (who eye him resentfully from across the yard) and from the Corsicans who in effect treat him as a houseboy. But he quickly learns to exploit his new affiliation, and becomes determined to reap the benefits.
Educating himself both formally (classes in reading and writing, then economics) and informally (learning Corsican from a dictionary and listening in on the details of the gang's business), Malik gradually sheds his victim skin and arms himself with the skills necessary to thrive in the dog-eat-dog world into which he's been tossed. When most of the Corsicans get transferred to another prison, Malik becomes right-hand man to Cesar, who hooks him up with day-passes to the outside in order to run assorted unsavory errands. It is on these trips that Malik begins to set up his own drug-trafficking business, using his prison-learned savvy to manipulate the network of criminals he meets through the Corsican connection, and catapult himself into the driver's seat of his own life.
Incredibly gritty and realistic in style, and never less than enthralling story-wise, A Prophet is also infused with layers of subtext and touches of artistry that lift it far above the average gangster story or prison drama. Just below the surface, the film is a study of both the nature of power and the question of identity, and how the two play out vis-à-vis each other in the sociopolitical arena. As Malik's stature and influence rise both within and without the prison's walls, so apparently does his allegiance to his own Arab identity. But this shift is never complete and always modified and mediated by the dynamics of his personal struggle for survival and (eventually) quest for dominance. Towards the end of the film, when—having solidified his own clout—Malik crosses the yard to stand with his newly-found Arab allies and in effect flips off his former protector Cesar, we are left to wonder whether this turn is motivated by a desire to reclaim his ethnic roots, or by his voracious climb up the ladder of authority on which this just happens to be the next rung.
As with Audiard's other work (including Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped), a thread of surrealism weaves through the film-mainly in the form of the not-so-ghostly presence of Rayeb, who after being murdered appears regularly in Malik's cell, sharing his bed, dancing around, making little predictions, and (one suspects) doing a bit of duty as his killer's guardian angel. There are also wryly comical notes throughout, providing welcome breaks from the intensity of the action. (My favorite: at one point as Malik and the ghost of Rayeb talk over cigarettes, Malik notices that the smoke is escaping from the stab-wound in Rayeb's neck, and admonishes him ["That's disgusting!"] to cover the opening while he exhales.) Yet these notes are never off-key or gratuitous, and often serve to humanize the characters and/or to amplify the ironic nature of their predicament. When Malik takes his first airplane ride on a day-pass errand for Cesar, his barely-contained expression of wonder and delight—while making for an unexpectedly sweet and funny moment—also reminds us that inside the thickening hide of gangster verve there is in fact still a child yearning to simply live.
With the notable exception of the great veteran actor Nils Arestrup, the film is cast mostly with new faces—another way Audiard brings immediacy to the prison sequences. And while everyone does exceptional work, it is Tahar Rahim who with confidence commands the viewer's attention and the film's center for the entirety of its 150-minute running time. Present in almost every scene, Mr. Rahim masterfully and subtly—sometimes with as little as a shift of his gaze—hits all the deep emotional notes that define Malik's intensely tumultuous six-year experience. His performance tops off the film's many virtues, and is truly a wonder to behold.
A Prophet opens in L.A.on February 26th, and is destined to garner the same attention stateside as it already has in Europe, where it won the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Festival.