A Prophet

A Prophet, the new film from French genre stylist Jacques Audriard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is a remarkable crime epic, told with the director’s signature visual flair, centred on a young French Muslim’s struggle to survive a six-year sentence in a tough prison.

A petty criminal, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives for his first day in the prison as an innocent thrown to the lions. Almost silent and obviously terrified, Malik is not yet a true criminal as much as he is a desperate young man. We are told he knows nobody in the jail, has no friends or family outside, no education, no resources and no plan for survival. The story of A Prophet is about how Malik comes to formulate a way out, not through the traditional escape of digging through walls but the construction of a new life outside, financially and psychologically.

The first movement of Audiard’s crime opera has Malik fall under the benign spell of Cesar Luchiani (Audriard favourite Niels Arestrup), a Corsican Mafioso who threatens to kill him unless he murders a fellow inmate, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). As the Corsican keeps a close eye on proceedings, Malik puts his plan to befriend and seduce the target, practising the execution in his cell. He has no choice but to kill, and from that point on Audiard slowly and masterfully tightens the noose around the young man’s neck as the Corsican returns with further favours to ask and threats to enforce. In the film’s most audacious move, Reyeb returns as a ghost to train his own killer in how to survive.

From that point on, Audiard moves Malik carefully through an occasionally confusing maze of criminal characters, divided loyalties, sensational set-pieces plans and absorbing confrontations. A Prophet is worth seeing if for no other reason than the intensely powerful central performance from newcomer Tahar Rahim who reminded me throughout of a young Robert De Niro, bristling with energy and an ability to twist his lumpy face into extraordinarily sincere expressions.

Audriard’s toneless palette of concrete grey and criss-crossed steel makes the prison a vision of a modernist hell, the cell walls looming over the inmates, their tiny rooms filled with remnants of the outside becoming shrines to regret and revenge. The photography and editing is exemplary; the early scenes shot with a half-closed iris emphasise Malik’s new claustrophobia before the camera finds the courage to stalk the corridors, trailing the young hoodlum as he finds his feet and a way out.

Audriard and his co-screenwriters Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit have combined to tell an elegantly structured story in which the accretion of tiny details and fascinating characters make A Prophet gripping from beginning to end. This is a sinewy genre story about hard nuts doing hard time that has the capacity and intelligence to address issues like social exclusion, criminal rehabilitation, state corruption and French national identity. It might be only the end of January, but A Prophet is one of the films of 2010.

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