Joe Nawaz gets banged up in Jacques Audiard's latest epic
Four years after the brutish and disgustingly delicate The Beat that my Heart Skipped, director Jacques Audiard returns with the much heralded and considerably darker A Prophet. Whilst ostensibly a prison epic, it still fills its two and a half hours with such brilliant stokes of humanity that it also makes a powerful case as searing social document.
In précis, an illiterate French Arab teenager named Malik El Djebena is sentenced to six years in prison. Friendless on the inside and parentless on the outside, he has nobody but himself to rely on. The movie follows him from the day he enters the prison to the day he leaves, older and wiser into an uncertain future.
In French prison life as in French civilian life, there exists strict lines of segregation amongst the lower orders, with Muslim inmates at the bottom of the heap and the white, mafioso-styled Corsicans running the show with the guards (or 'hacks' as they’re called here) at their beck and call.
Malik quickly and unwillingly finds himself under the protection of the Corsican contingent when he is compelled to befriend and murder informant Reyeb, a fellow Arab, at the behest of the brutal Kingpin César Luciani. Lucini (imagine if you care to) resembles nothing so much as a psychotic Anthony Worral-Thompson.
But that’s the closest you’ll get to stirring porridge in The Prophet - what follows is young dispossessed Malik’s struggles to better himself, both through education and with methods ever so slightly more contraband.
Seen with brutal contempt by the Corsicans for being just another 'Arab who thinks with his balls' and by Arab inmates for his perceived betrayal, he forges the kind of ‘third way' personal advancement strategy that disgraced war criminal Tony Blair would be proud of. Playing both sides when necessary and maintaining loyalty to none, he eventually works his way to a position of some power both inside and outside of prison life.
All the while though, the seemingly omnipotent César looms like a hirsute tumour in Malik’s life. Episodes of almost casual callousness include a quite disgusting attempt to gouge out Malik’s eye with a tea-spoon. In short, César is despicable and clearly due the deliciously satisfying comeuppance he receives near the end of the film.
There are many such sublime scenes that weld all the disparate elements of the plot together with a directorial deftness that a Hollywood version would mug shamelessly. We’re not in Oz any more Dorothy… A Prophet transcends such unsubtle drudgery with an aplomb that ensures that even the most stock prison clichés used in the film (brutal shower beatings and the like) lend it an air of uncomfortable documentary.
The illusory time that Malik spends with his only cell mate - his murder victim Reyeb - brings a beautiful touch of magic realism to proceedings and it’s treated as naturalistically as every other interaction in the clink, save for the dead occasionally catching fire or exhaling fag smoke through slashed throats.
Whatever, the interactions between the living dead and the deceased are the lovely, besmirched soul of the film and the place where we see Malik not only trying to rationalise his existence but also exercising and testing his intellect. These beautiful scenes offer a reflective tenderness that leave you feeling simultaneously teary and queasy.
Young actor Tahar Rahim, who plays Malik, is in nearly every scene in what has to be one of the cinematic performances of the year. To lavish his performance with written praise is to confine it somehow. Rahim’s Malik starts out as a hopeless, broken French boy of the despised ethnic underclass and throughout the movie grows before our eyes. Nothing so pedestrian as a flowering of character or even a redemption of self but a slow, gradual unfurling of one seemingly hopeless individual’s potential.
Malik seems as surprised, delighted and horrified as us at times to discover what he’s capable of – a truly complete performance and the beginning, one would hope, of a big career. Excellent support is provided by Audiard regular Niels Arestrup as the vile, dwarfish kingpin César, Adel Bencherif as Malik’s best friend and Hichem Yacoubi in his small but pivotal role as the murdered Reyeb. A gallery of brutish French grotesques - many of them genuine inmates - help to lend The Prophet that added dollop of authenticity – as if it were needed.
Director Audiard has spoken of delivering a new kind of icon for French cinema, though I’m not certain that the character of Malik is suitably heroic or nasty enough to fill that role. Rather, Tahir Rahim’s towering performance offers something much more vital; a plausible, flawed yet sympathetic Arab anti-hero. Not to mention a considerably stylish two fingers to the French right, who frequently mask racism with a phoney republicanism.
Jacques Audiard has to take the credit for fearlessly creating a very human drama out of a prison crisis and the absence of outright sermonising is refreshing. The washed out, colour-drained cinematography lends a patina of grim authenticity to the prison setting.
When our hero finally leaves prison and walks off into the sunset, it’s a deeply satisfying ending to a film both uplifting and uncompromising.
If 2007’s wonderful ‘war’ movie Days of Glory showed us the origins of the great lie of ‘Mother France’, then 2009’s ‘prison’ movie A Prophet reminds us just how such a lie has left French society 60 years later. This is a must-see movie for anybody who cares about such things, thought that Shawshank Redemption wasn’t particularly redemptive, enjoys a good bit of gangster action or even likes films with subtitles - something for everyone in fact.
As my decidedly pithier Gallic alter-ego might be tempted to say between drags of a throat-frotting Gitane: Vive la difference, vive Un Prophète.
A Prophet shows in the QFT from January 22 to February 4.