Taut, atmospheric, violent, and amoral, A Prophet is a riveting portrait of an education within the sub-Machiavellian culture of prison; a brutal drama that shows the transformation of a small-time criminal into a big-time boss; and a vivid illustration of the connection between incarceration and the radical form of Islam that keeps much of Europe on edge.
Movie history is full of charismatic antiheroes. Yet when Malik enters a tough French prison at age 19, sentenced to six years for an assault against a police officer that he claims he did not commit, he seems more like a feral child than a hardened criminal. He can neither read nor write. As a bilingual, French-born Arab who is not an observant Muslim, Malik is immediately an ambiguous figure in a prison divided.
Similarly, most prison movies are about escape; A Prophet is about the creation of a consciousness. It is an object lesson in how prison can serve as a finishing school for crooks, an epic-styled comment on getting through modern life, with spirituality and loyalty playing side parts to gaining raw skill. We watch a young man transformed by life behind bars. Rarely have the steps to thuggery been so meticulously detailed, neither romanticized nor negated.
Writer-director Jacques Audiard replicates The Godfather’s most elusive element, not the dark comedy or the operatic bloodletting, but the incremental corruption of a decent man into a coldhearted killer. Along with its rigorous technical brilliance, what makes A Prophet more enthralling than depressing is the sense that Malik’s rise to power stems from something mysterious within himself, an inexplicable moral center that may be related to the premonitory visions implicitly referenced in the title.
The sheer force of Audiard’s direction persuades you, bullies you to love his filmmaking. Narratively, however, he is subtle about the unimaginable transformation he records, letting it unfold slowly, so that only when we reach the end can we see Malik as a new man who has come so far. The moral stakes are as insistent and methodical as the aesthetic choices.
While Audiard dreams big, A Prophet never succumbs to the pitfalls of the prison-movie genre and carries the heavy load of its themes with ease. It solidifies Audiard’s standing as a mastermind whose work leaves genre classifications in the dust. There’s even something poetic about how Audiard, in the midst of carnage, manages to make a punch to the stomach seem like the most ferocious act of all.
Urgently summoning our attention is one of the most impressive performances of recent times by relative newcomer Tahar Rahim. Rahim is an exciting, unpredictable presence, and imbues his character with fascinating nuance and surprising vulnerability. And as César, Niels Arestrup (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) attains a nearly Shakespearean stature.
A Prophet is an unsentimental, gritty, arresting gangster saga injected with vitality and humanity, and a startlingly momentous journey of hard-fought survival told with unforgettable verve. It is also an answered prayer for those who believe that revitalizing traditional forms with modern attitudes makes for the most compelling kind of cinema.
Like Scarface played straight, or a Gallic GoodFellas without the fizz, A Prophet is one of the greatest prison films ever made, one that can stand with the best thrillers from any country. In it, we are held captive, for 150 minutes, in a powerful work of art. There are few places I’d rather be.