At the Arthouse
A Prophet combines old and new in exhilarating ways
A Prophet, the new film by French director Jacques Audiard, combines the new and the old in exhilarating ways. The film is set in a French prison, and many of its elements will feel familiar to filmgoers. The prison groans with racial tension, mostly between the native French and the North African Muslims, and, most familiarly, in this prison it’s the inmates who set the rules, not the warden.
More specifically, daily life in the prison is controlled by a Corsican gang led by Luciani, played by the magnificently Brandoesque Niels Arestrup, who also made quite an impression in Audiard’s previous film, the very strong TheBeat that My Heard Skipped. In that film Arestrup played the kind of father you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. He forced his would-be concert pianist son to give up his dreams to help him run his shady real estate operation. His character was a real bastard, but he was so charismatic, and so perversely soulful, that you saw how his intelligent and sensitive son got caught up in his undertow.
The scenario in A Prophet is similar, but also has striking differences. This time the father/son relationship is not literal. Here Luciani adopts (shanghais is a better word) Malik, a young, rootless and aimless French Muslim. Luciani offers Malik the protection of his gang, but in return Malik has to murder a prisoner before the prisoner can testify in court against the Corsicans.
All of this unfurls in the opening moments of the film. You’ve barely settled into your seat before Malik has slashed his unsuspecting victim’s throat with a razor blade in what must be one of the most memorable and revolting murders ever filmed. The throat-slashing is disgusting, but Audiard makes you feel as much for the killer as for the killed. Audiard paints such a convincing portrait of how little choice Malik has in the matter that, even as the blood is spurting, you say to yourself "you know, in his shoes I would’ve done the same thing."
Once Malik has passed this initiation of fire, Audiard shows us his evolution as a criminal, under the tutelage of Luciani. Step by step Malik grows into his new role, as he evolves from a nobody to a somebody. The parallels with Al Pacino’s Scarface are pretty clear, yet newcomer Tahar Rahim’s performance couldn’t be more different from Pacino’s. This is where A Prophet offers something new in crime film.
Instead of chewing the carpet, a la Pacino, Rahim shows how Malik is really just a product of his environment, and that even as he becomes a full-fledged hitman he retains a haunting vulnerability. Seldom has an onscreen killer been more wide-eyed and sympathetic. Malik experiences the worst that his violent world has to offer, both giving and receiving, but somehow retains his innocence. Or his humanity, at any rate.
The development of Malik’s character is so thorough, patient and detailed that A Prophet feels like a novel. Along with this literary attention to character development, Audiard also creates a handful of stunning cinematic images: the throat-slashing scene, the roadside death of a deer, a high-speed attack by a drug gang.
Really, A Prophet has it all. With it, Audiard establishes himself as one of the world’s great filmmaker.