Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

At the age of nineteen Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a man. The relevance of this, similar to the United States is that I imagine in France that being nineteen might mean that you can’t buy a beer but it does mean you can grab a M-16 and fight in a war and it also means that if you commit crime you are going to jail with the big boys. This is where director Jacques Audiard’s highly acclaimed and Academy Award nominated film ‘A Prophet’ begins its story.

Malik is young, Arab and a little naďve but for the most part he just wants to do these six years, for a crime he says he didn’t commit like everybody else in prison says, and mind his own business. This is not going to happen for young Malik. This particular prison is run by a group of rather unsavory Corsican mobsters led by the rather unsavory Cesar Luciani (Neils Arustrup). It seems that a man has been admitted to this prison and Cesar’s colleagues on the outside need this man eliminated, and soon, because he’s slated to testify against them in a few days time. Well it’s not like Cesar or his crew are going to be able to get to this cat, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), because for starters he’s paranoid, he’s also Arab and has aligned himself in the cell block with the other Arab’s so carrying out this hit will be a challenge. What would help Cesar’s cause is if he had access to a reasonably attractive young Arab man, because it would seem that Reyeb has a predilection for this kind of thing, who can get close to the man and handle this business for him. Hello Malik, meet Cesar.

Now Malik does everything within his limited power to avoid having to do this but his options are few. Eventually this thing gets done and now Malik is under the ‘protection’ of Don Luciani and his Corsican crew. Now if by ‘protection’ they mean virtual slave and whipping boy, there you go. He serves them coffee, he sweeps up, he withstands their constant racial assaults and occasional physical ones, and he listens and he learns. You see Malik is a child of the streets and has never had an opportunity to do anything. Prison has provided him this opportunity. He makes the acquaintance of Ryad (Adel Bencharif) who will become his friend, somewhat bridge the gap between

the rift created by Malik’s association with the Corsicans and his fellow Arab inmates but more importantly he will teach Malik how to read. Deadly skill this ability to read and now Malik himself realizes he is not quite as dumb as he thought he may have been. Then through the simple ability to listen and observe, Malik will learn the Corsican language which will also come in handy. Even more critically Cesar will grow to rely on Malik more and more, while often still abusing him and completely ignoring the young man’s obvious intelligence. A critical error. What Cesar has done is gone and created a most effective instrument of his own undoing, something he didn’t realize until it was entirely too late.

Hmmm… a two and half hour foreign language film that largely takes place in a series of claustrophobic six by nine rooms. How in the world did director Jacques Audiard pull this off so damned effectively? There’s no true comparison in what I’m about to say but the day before I saw ‘A Prophet’ I saw the movie ‘Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief’ and was simply amazed at how lazy that movie was. All of the effort of that film was put in by the special effects team whereas all of the hard work in this film was put in by screenwriters, the actors and the director.

From the opening frames, as we meet the character of Malik and observe Tahar Rahim’s impressive portrayal of this character, it was clear that I was watching something unique. It wasn’t until the movie was almost over that it was also clear that I was watching something special. There are far too many things going on in this film, both on the surface and beneath to even try to attempt to dissect them all in the limited time that we have together… the politics of racism, class, violence, indoctrination, education, loyalty, friendship, trust, hubris… but there is a level of depth in this crime picture which is simply amazing. Also, this is the antithesis of ‘lazy filmmaking’ in that this is a film that follows no known convention. Usually when we sit down to watch a movie we expect this to happen or that happen because this is simply the way it is. ‘A Prophet’ quickly removes you from this as this story unfolds as unpredictably as life itself. After a while you stop trying to figure out what might happen and simply allow it happen. That, all in of itself, is rare. And I can’t leave this page without mentioning the powerful performances of Niels Arestrup or Adel Bencherif who complemented Rahim’s growth as a character in this film nearly perfectly.

I have mentioned this before in that I do not believe in awards arbitrarily assigned by mysterious committees, particularly where creativity is involved. It’s total nonsense to me. But I tell you what, if there’s a better movie than ‘A Prophet’, or even a set of movies that are almost as good, these are movies I’m going to have to see.

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