A Prophet (Un Prophete)

Jacques Audiard

9/10 (Convoluted and a bit incredible, inconsistent application of titular theme)

Here is a fantastic movie. I would say it’s better than “El Secreto de Sus Ojos,” which beat it for 2009’s “Academy” award of Best Foreign Film, but not by too much. I also have to admit that I didn’t fully understand “El Secreto” due to watching it without subtitles. With either choice, however, here’s one category that the “Academy” has actually gotten right recently.

“A Prophet” is an utterly realistic depiction of Parisian prison life. I guess I should say apparently realistic since I have no idea what Parisian prison life is actually like. It certainly seems believable, which I guess is the point of film anyway. It’s gritty and uncensored, and you as the viewer are privy to a slow unraveling of the politics of prison life. In that sense you empathize with the main character Malik, who is learning the ropes right alongside you.

The story follows Malik’s arrival to the prison as a very small-time criminal, his forced transformation into a brutal murderer, and then his slow rise to the top of the prison hierarchy, run by the Corsican mafia. You see the impossible situation he is faced with and the agonizing decision he has to make between the lesser of two evils, and you flinch at the brutal aftermath.

The movie would have been less outstanding if not for the sublime acting. We meet Malik as a naive prison newbie, but the quiet intelligence and cold resolve that actor Tahir Rahim conveys as he transforms organically into a respected leader are impressive. Not many actors could convince the audience that they are illiterate peons and calculating bosses in different stories, let alone the same film.

Likewise, Niels Arestrup (as Corsican Mafia boss Cesar Luciani) is alternately pitiable and menacing, cruel and grandfatherly, sometimes all in the same scene. It is genuinely scary to watch him, and each scene is a fascinating character study in itself. Much credit is due to the script and direction for eliciting such powerful performances.

This would have been a perfect film but for a few minor flaws that taken together decrease its overall value. The plot got convoluted as more complicated drug plots and different gangsters were introduced. It was difficult to keep track of how Malik was actually playing everyone off of one another, and the whole thing felt a little crowded.

Because of this, the “prophet” theme wasn’t woven as consistently into the film as it should have been. The handful of scenes we got with Malik being haunted by the ghost of his first victim were a disjointed few compared to the vast complexity of the rest of the film, and the reference toward the end to him being a prophet seemed forced.

One last mistake that was more glaring was the handling of the climactic gun battle in the streets of Paris. (Spoilers) The entire film up to that point had been relatively subdued and subtle, but then this 5-minute segment was pretty shocking by going just completely over the top. The idea that they could kill three men, shoot up an entire car, then beat one of the men and drag him back to their van in front of a crowded sidewalk cafe without any repercussions seemed a bit of a stretch (granted, I’m not familiar with the bourgeois streets of Paris) . My wife took the words out of my mouth when she asked me toward the end, “Uh, where are the police?”

But even the aftermath of that action sequence was handled superbly, with Malik’s deaf numbness and his friend Ryad’s restrained joy. The unbelievability action scene itself was just an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise superb movie.

Otherwise, with the base story of the impressive self-invention of a crime boss, you can’t help but compare “A Prophet” to that other iconic immigrant-transforms-into-mafioso flick, “Godfather Part II.” If Tahir Rahim’s portrayal and Audiard’s direction fall short of their predecessors DeNiro and Coppola, it’s not by much.

5 January 2011

Other Reviews of “Prophet”


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