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A Prophet Review


RATING:
(3 STARS)

Director Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is as well-told as it is unoriginal. The story of a young Arab prisoner rising up the ranks of the Corsican mafia isn’t really anything new, but it’s still a great genre picture. Recalling films like The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas, as well as HBO’s television series The Wire, Audiard’s film is equal parts character study and traditional crime tale. It’s exciting without resorting to manipulation. Yet, I can’t get 100% behind it the way so many other critics have. I kept waiting for the film to land a knockout punch, and it never does. It plugs along in a very engaging and entertaining fashion, but Audiard rarely steps outside the traditional crime-film box.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a 19-year-old Arab about to spend six years in a French prison. In the beginning stages of his sentence, he is a loner who’s just trying to stay out of trouble. But when a Corsican mafia leader by the name of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) recruits Malik to take out an enemy, he gets caught up in a world he doesn’t belong in. Not only are the Corsicans hostile toward Malik for his race, but he’s also haunted by the specter of the man he killed.

As his sentence goes on, however, Malik embraces the protection offered to him by Cesar and the Corsicans. He earns the trust and admiration of Cesar when Malik learns his language and does Cesar a number of favors. And as Cesar’s allies get released, he realizes the only person he can really put his trust in is Malik. But with the respect Malik is earning in and out of prison, does he really want to continue working for Cesar?

The first hour of A Prophet is brilliant—some of the best work I’ve seen in a long time. This is the portion of the film leading up to Malik’s first kill and its aftereffects. Malik’s fears are palpable, and his reaction to the deed is completely believable. As the film progresses, however, it doesn’t focus as intently on the character of Malik, but rather the intricacies of his missions for Cesar. I’ve seen elaborate crimes on film before. I wanted more of this fascinating character.

One of the biggest reasons A Prophet succeeds so much as a character study is the brilliant acting by previously unknown Tahar Rahim. It’s a fearless performance, and it felt totally authentic. Between his lower-class status and his race, he has no business being in the position he gets himself into. He’s not even sure he wants it. Rahim presents Malik as a young man full of uncertainty about what he has gotten himself into. He sees crime as a way to rise up in the world, but he also is haunted by what he has done and would like nothing more than to escape it all and settle down near his friend Ryad (Adel Bencherif).

Rahim’s work is nearly equaled by that of Niels Arestrup. Cesar is a ruthless individual, but as the film goes on we see moments of vulnerability from him. There’s something Shakespearean about the way he loses power, and we begin to pity him, even though he remains tough-as-nails. These two characters are travelling in completely opposite directions, yet their relationship remains the same throughout.

I thought Jacques Audiard’s direction was great. The world he creates is incredibly gritty and bleak, much more so than your average Hollywood prison environment. There isn’t much hope inside, and the few glimpses we get of the world outside the walls don’t make it look much better. That being said, I just wish the director focused more on these characters and less on their crimes. The complexities of the Malik/Cesar relationship offer much more than the complexities of the mob’s dirty dealings. Plus, the bloated run time could have been considerably cut.

Despite the film’s missteps, I still think there is enough here to give it a high recommendation. The acting alone is worth the price of admission. And teamed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2010 release, Micmacs, it shows just how strong French cinema is today.

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