Phil on Film Index

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review - A Prophet (Un prophète)

A Prophet opens in disorienting darkness, as 19 year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) begins a six-year stretch in a French prison for assault. His clothes and his possessions are taken from him, and he is asked a series of questions – does he have has any family, any friends on the inside, any faith? To each question, the bewildered and scared Malik replies "No." He hardly looks like someone who will last long within the tough and dangerous environment he is stepping into, but Malik doesn't just survive prison life, he prospers. His progression from vulnerable, illiterate nobody to well-connected criminal forms the narrative arc in Jacques Audiard's fifth and finest film. We follow Malik as he adapts to this new world, forms alliances, and soaks up every lesson like a sponge – watching, exploring and learning at every step of his journey. He is practically a new man at the end of the film, but the fact that we believe in his transformation is testament to Rahim and Audiard's considerable accomplishment.

Audiard's filmmaking mirrors Malik's experiences. The first part of the picture is directed with a tense, nervous energy, and with Malik frequently being filmed in shadow or pushed into corners, as he slowly comes to terms with his new surroundings. The film's depiction of jail life is utterly authentic and instantly gripping, full of telling details and a claustrophobic atmosphere. To survive, Malik needs protection, and that service is offered by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the veteran Corsican crook whose influence spreads far and wide throughout the prison. If Malik wants to be taken under his wing, however, he will have to lose his soul, and murder a fellow prisoner who is preparing to act as a key trial witness. The murder, with its unbearably tense build-up and violent execution, is a nail-biting sequence, and from this point onwards, Malik's path is set.

In a neat twist, Malik's first victim doesn't depart the scene after he has been murdered, instead hanging around in his killer's cell, smoking in a benign fashion (the smoke drifting out from the deep cut in his neck) and acting as a constant reminder of Malik's terrible crime. Fanciful touches like this help Audiard to break up the visual monotony of endless scenes set within the same grey walls. He also uses Malik's probationary day release to this effect, with his brief excursions in the outside world allowing the character to build up his contacts and giving Audiard the opportunity to widen the film's focus. His direction appears to become more expansive in step with Malik's growing confidence and influence, and as well as well as incorporating some superb set-pieces (a close-quarters shootout inside a vehicle being one highlight), the film shares his sense of excitement and wonderment at travelling in a plane, or feeling the sand of the beach between his toes for the first time.

Audiard's control of his film is so sure, misjudgements are rare, but they are not completely absent. His storytelling grows a little tangled at points, notably in the way Malik develops his criminal network and plays both the Corsican and Muslim factions of the prison simultaneously. Audiard also stumbles with a scene in which Malik appears to have a vision of the future, which is a too-literal reading of the film's title and an incident that feels jarringly out of step with the film's nature. These are minor wobbles, however, and our attention remains riveted throughout A Prophet, primarily thanks to the mesmerising performance delivered by Rahim. The young actor, who had only a few minor credits to his name before being handed this challenging role, has a cool, wary watchfulness that fits a character who learns to keep his eyes and ears open, and his mind working, at all times. He keeps Malik at a certain distance from us, making him a fascinating but enigmatic figure, and fully convincing us as his character is shaped by his experiences and environment.

Matching the newcomer stride for stride is Niels Arestrup, giving a fearsome and majestic turn as the intimidating Luciani, who unwittingly teaches Malik everything he needs to know, and then watches helplessly as the young criminal eclipses him. Such is the depth of Arestrup's performance, and the nature of Audiard's filmmaking, we are unsure how to feel about this turn of events. Should we feel sympathy for the old man? Should we see it as a triumph for Malik, even though he has sold his soul and is now set for a life of criminality? Will he eventually end up as Luciani did, ruling his tiny kingdom from the confines of a cell he will surely die in? Audiard leaves us to ask these questions as he ends the film with a masterful closing shot. He has hinted at the possibility of future films involving Malik, eventually developing into a crime trilogy, but I'd prefer to see him leave this absorbing film to stand alone. Instead, we can all speculate on the subsequent fate of the young man who entered prison with nothing, and who left with everything.