Movie Review: A Prophet
By Matthew Huntley
March 11, 2010
Some of cinema's most notable heroes are also its most notorious criminals. Don and Michael Corleone; Tony "Scarface" Montana; Henry Hill; the Joker - these are reprehensible human beings for whom we have the utmost respect, at least for a time. Maybe it's their sense of power; their overwhelming confidence; their persistent nature; or their enigmatic souls. Whatever the reason, we find them fascinating and it's hopeless not to like and care for them, despite their day jobs.
We're not necessarily drawn to these people because they're criminals, but because they're complicated individuals who overcome seemingly impossible circumstances in a world always working against them. The fact they're immoral, devious and sometimes grotesque is beside the point.
The hero of A Prophet (French title Un prophète) starts off like many of the characters above - he enters a world he doesn't understand and can't control; he's ordered by those in power to carry out an unconscionable act; and he's eventually accepted and protected as long as he plays by the rules. This is a fairly common setup for a crime story, but it's what happens afterward that makes A Prophet such an intriguing story, when the hero learns who he is and finds a place of his own.
His name is Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a fragile and illiterate 19-year-old of Arab and Corsican descent. As the film opens, Malik is starting his six-year sentence in a French prison and immediately becomes the victim of beatings, theft and homosexual offers. The prison is secretly controlled by the Corsican Mafia, led by one of the inmates, the white-bearded César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who is currently serving more time than his entourage. After Malik proves himself loyal to the Corsican network, Luciani sends him on more important missions, both inside and outside the prison walls. All the while, Malik is tortured, or perhaps guided, by one of his own victims. Through dreams and visions, he gains an inexplicable ability to sense things before they happen, hence the film's title.
I'm not sure I bought the whole prophecy aspect of the story (the screenplay suggests Malik's ability, but it's mostly unclear and under-developed). The four screenwriters could have dropped this altogether and still had a solid narrative, although there is one breathtaking scene when Malik's newly acquired talent is put to good cinematic use.
But prophesizing isn't what the film is about. It's about a bullied kid who learns by doing, applies himself and ascends to a rank even he couldn't have foreseen. It's filled with strong confrontations between characters and moments of intense, effective violence. The story, while not exactly inspired, is rich because it focuses on Malik as a young man. We get to see him develop during his six-year sentence when it could have simply flash forwarded years into his life and become a conventional crime drama with him already in control, which we've seen many times over. As it is, this is a coming-of-age story because we see Malik learn, grow and finally look out on the world with a sense of hope and accomplishment. I know, he's still a criminal, but that's not why we identify with him.
A Prophet was directed by Jacques Audiard, who clearly has a passion for his story and characters. He directs with an unblinking eye and at 150 minutes, the film is exciting and ceaselessly watchable, but also exhausting. At certain moments, I sensed Audiard was trying too hard to be loyal to the genre that he loves so dear instead of finding his own voice and transcending standard conventions. The closing shot was a bit much for me because it over-accentuates where the hero is headed even though we could have surmised this for ourselves (if it had ended just minutes earlier, it would have told us everything we need to know without grandstanding). Nevertheless, the film is very well made, brutal and entertaining. I don't know if it will go down in history as one of the great crime sagas, but Malik can certainly be added to the list that opened this review.