by HELEN GEIB
One of the most highly acclaimed European films of 2009, A Prophet is a French film directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped). It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and was France’s submission, and one of the nominees, for best foreign film at the Academy Awards. In its home country, it won nine Cesars (the French Oscar), including film, director, actor, and supporting actor.
A Prophet is a remarkable character study of a young man of Arab descent named Malik (Tahar Rahim). The story begins with his incarceration for a six year sentence and ends with his release. The circumstances of his arrest and conviction are never filled in, nor is his background. Prison is its own world where a person’s past is irrelevant; all the more so for someone like Malik who doesn’t have anyone, family or gang, on the outside. He also doesn’t have anyone on the inside to protect him when Cesar (Niels Arestrup), headman of the Corsicans inside the prison, orders him to kill another inmate. Cesar is pleased with Malik’s performance and makes him the group’s errand boy. Ironically, his unwilling recruitment sets him on a transformational new course in life, in ways both positive- notably, learning to read- and negative- building a criminal enterprise of his own from the ground up.
The film fits the template of the prison drama and can be appreciated as an exceptional genre piece. Malik is the young (relative) innocent brutalized by the system, Cesar the grizzled lifer who shows him the ropes and with whom he forms a relationship of ambivalent mutual dependence. Other characters fall similarly into place. Physical deprivation is extreme, though ameliorated to a degree by contraband. Emotional deprivation finds outlet in violence. The guards are corrupt. The inmates are fractured along sectarian lines that reflect the divisions of the larger French society.
The setting is realized with impressive verisimilitude in the sets, costumes, and overall production design. Source lighting and tight camera angles that emphasize the circumscribed area and claustrophobic qualities of the inmates’ surroundings also serve to heighten the film’s naturalism; the walls and ceilings of the cells press inward, the prison yard is small and barren. The evident social commentary is a natural outgrowth of the realism.
The film is realistic, yet also mysterious. Audiard confounds with understatement, ambiguity, and mysticism. The movie is long and has the rhythm of Malik’s life, which is a prison existence of dulling routine broken sometimes by explosive action. Let the film work its spell, however, and it will stay with you a long time. What does the title mean, is Malik’s visitor a vision or a delusion, what was he thinking and feeling the last time he looked at Cesar? The last scene may even haunt you as it does me.
A Prophet is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The sparse extras include deleted scenes and rehearsal footage.