A Prophet

Review by Dan Brightmore @danbrightmore

Directed by

Jacques Audiard

Starring

Adel Bencherif Niels Arestrup Tahar Rahim

Anticipation.

A gangster movie from the director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped? Interesting choice.

Enjoyment.

You’ll be engrossed, shocked, scared, surprised and overwhelmed by a true tour de force.

In Retrospect.

Takes its place among the greatest crime films ever made.

Director Jacques Audiard and Tahar Rahim deliver a true tour de force in this unforgettable prison drama.

This modern gangster classic fires the imagination with the epic sweep of The Godfather combined with a brutality that grabs you and won’t let go. Just like Goodfellas, the audience is soon immersed in the shifting hierarchy of a Mafia family, here augmented by a feudal prison system where everything has a price.

When young Arab hoodlum Malik (Tahar Rahim) finds himself incarcerated for six years in one of France’s toughest jails, he’s ostracised by devout Muslim inmates disgusted by his lack of faith; shunned by Corsican gangsters who rule the yard; and destined for a fate worse than death.

Adrift in a deadly no man’s land where an early scene illustrates that life inside is worth less than a pair of trainers, reality hits hard. Malik – barefoot in the bleakest winter of his young life – is stripped down from the outside in. Taken under the wing of Niels Arestrup’s Italian gang boss after proving his mettle as a murderer for hire, Malik is faced with a dark dilemma: be blackmailed into becoming a go-between, or die a nobody. But the underdog has big ideas…

It’s a remarkable performance from big screen newcomer Rahim – the young Algerian’s portrayal of a hard fought rise through the ranks from fresh-faced innocent to ruthless kingpin is breathtaking. Devoid of bombast, the audience is presented with the always convincing story of a man who has no choice but to adapt and survive in a claustrophobic prison system.

Jacques Audiard’s clever use of magic realism allows us to glimpse Malik’s inner struggle with his own humanity as we return to the scene of his first hit – a disturbing quasi-religious baptism of blood with a razor. It’s one of many chilling spikes in a narrative not for the squeamish.

But it’s not just in the portrayal of the dehumanising effects of prison life – with its cigarette currency, drug addiction and brutal cell shakedowns – that A Prophet excels. As the story moves beyond the prison walls, some blistering set pieces recall the quick fire bravado of classic Melville, and the brooding pyrotechnics of Jules Dassin’s Rififi.

Audiard has provided French cinema with a shot to the main vein that should be a call-to-arms to a new generation of French filmmakers to do it their way, concentrating on character and avoiding the pitfalls of Hollywood high concept.

Following on from the double-barrelled biopic of Mesrine, the Gallic gangster tradition appears to be in rude health. Audiard’s film is a triumph that deserves international recognition, but as with the likes of Gomorrah, films that tell it like it is reap their own rewards.

Published 21 Jan 2010

Tags: French Cinema

Anticipation.

A gangster movie from the director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped? Interesting choice.

Enjoyment.

You’ll be engrossed, shocked, scared, surprised and overwhelmed by a true tour de force.

In Retrospect.

Takes its place among the greatest crime films ever made.

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