A young man is sent to jail. He ends up under the wing of an older mentor. He works his way up the private food chain inside the jail and then eventually makes some moves of his own.
It's not a particularly new story, but as told by Jacques Audiard, "Un Prophète" is electrifying, soulful entertainment, a beautifully told film featuring great performances and remarkable cinematography. I saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival, and it actually made my top 20 for last year. Here's what I wrote when I included it on the list at #12:
"Jacques Audiard has been building an incredible resume as a director over the last decade, and he's been working as a writer for almost 30 years now, but to me, it feels like everything came together for the first time here, with 'A Prophet,' a haunting film that takes the 'life in prison' genre and supercharges it with a soul that's normally lacking from these films. A young Arab man is sent to prison, where he has to learn the rules of survival. He demonstrates a real knack for it, though, and gradually starts to move his way up the social ladder, eventually crossing into a world that is typically closed to his kind, the Mafia. The relationship between him and an Corsican crime boss is a study in the way power works, and in the way it fosters resentment that slowly simmers until someone has to die. The film is visually arresting, but beyond that, it feels authentic, organic, never forced despite the rigid structure of the script. It is a singular experience, and it managed to take a basic story (someone learning to survive in prison) and make it feel like it's being told for the very first time."
I don't think it's accurate to say this is the first time Audiard has put it all together. Both "Read My Lips" and "The Beat My Heart Skipped" are very good films, and "A Prophet" is definitely an extension of the work he did on those, the next evolutionary step for him as a filmmaker. It's just that the jump here from very good to oh-wow-great was enough to send me reeling.
The film starts with Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) being processed into prison. He's a tough kid, but lost, and completely over his head when he first arrives. He's not ready for prison, and he could easily get eaten alive by the system if not for the intervention of an older gangster, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who puts Malik to work. Malik's serving six years, and like many people who enter prison at a young age, he essentially gets his education at the hands of the people he's surrounded by. There's a lot of stuff at the start of the film that's familiar, but as the characters of Malik and César come into focus, the film stops feeling familiar and starts feeling deeply personal.
It's around two-and-a-half hours, and there's an epic sweep to the journey that Malik takes as a person, and it's an amazing performance by Tahar Rahim, and he really does seem to change over the course of the film. The first step on his road to maturity is murdering another Arab inmate, Reyeb, played by Hichem Yacoubi. This is important because César is a Corsican, and there is already intense racial tension between all the various factions in the prison, and particularly between Arabs and Corsicans. The way Malik lets himself be used against his own people is important to the development of his character. He's terrified, and he's simply looking for some sort of strength, some guarantee he's going to make it out alive. Malik can be deadly when provoked, even though it takes a lot for him to assert himself. Once he does, though, he quickly becomes invaluable to César, and each new task he's asked to accomplish becomes another opportunity for him to prove what he can do, but he also finds himself a man without a nation as a result of his efforts. The film covers years of his development, and there are some amazing set pieces, amazing images within those moments.
It's the sort of film that really lingers because of the way Audiard marshalls the efforts of his collaborators. Alexandre Desplat is one of my favorite working composers, and he contributes a smart, subtle score here that offers the right support to the film without ever overpowering it. And Stéphane Fontaine's cinematography is expressive and personal, and it feels like you're seeing the world through Malik's eyes, like you're learning the ropes with him. There's one image near the end of the film, during a terrifying shoot-out, that is just transcendent, and it's that combination of the poetic and the mundane that makes "A Prophet" absolutely worth seeing in the theater as it rolls out in limited release in the weeks ahead.
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