A Prophet has been compared to films such as The Godfather and Scarface. The comparison to The Godfather is decent thematically, although it is a bit premature to declare a film on par with a classic that has survived the test of nearly 40 years. The Scarface comparison, though, is almost an insult. As a fan of Brian De Palma’s 1983 story of a Cuban refugee turned Miami drug czar, I feel confident in saying it’s mere popcorn fodder in comparison to Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. Leave Scarface to the thugs that make up Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and reserve A Prophet for people who enjoy watching Gomorrah or City of God. As I mentioned when I named it the best film of 2009, watch A Prophet as the third film in a triple-feature with those two and your cup will runneth over with quality.
I was a virgin to Audiard’s work before settling in to watch A Prophet months after it won the grand prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and as the film played on I was kicking myself for not being more familiar with his work up to this point. His ability to deliver an intense French gangster thriller all while maintaining an importance of human self worth was exhilarating. At the center of the story is 19-year-old Malik El Djebena played with uninhibited precision by Tahar Rahim in a feature film-starring debut that ranks among the best in the business.
Malik is a French native of Arab descent facing a six-year prison term. How he got there isn’t important but who he truly is means everything as he’s about to step into an environment controlled by a Corsican gang with a select group of guards in their pocket. Who Malik is, is a Frenchman that speaks both French and Arabic and yet doesn’t know how to read or write. Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) realizes Malik’s “face” value almost immediately and wants to use him to kill a new inmate of similar ethnicity, and with the mere proposition his life is on the line. It’s kill or be killed and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. Carrying out the request will secure him six years of prison protection, but at the same time he’ll be heading down a path that makes his criminal career to this point look like paint-by-numbers.
All of A Prophet falls on Rahim’s shoulders and he carries it as if he’s been doing it for years. What’s going on behind his eyes is a mystery, but you can’t help but watch their every movement for even the slightest clue as to how he is perceiving each scene as it unfolds. There is a stuttering and stammering to his speech when confronted with difficult situations, but then there are other moments when his life, or the lives of others, is on the line and he reacts with the utmost of confidence. This film could have easily been titled An Education had it not already been taken, because that’s exactly what Malik is getting.
Equally magnificent is Niels Arestrup, a man I was also unfamiliar with before seeing this film despite having seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Since seeing A Prophet I watched Audiard’s previous feature, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which also starred Arestrup only to realize the now 61-year-old actor is a talent I need to acquaint myself with further. Arestrup brings a certain level of venom to Cesar as the weary king of his surroundings. Comparatively Malik is simply a pawn to be done with as Cesar pleases, but his arrogance will soon get the better of him. These two actors share the majority of the film’s 155 minute running time and no matter their status, as with chess, the king and the pawn are put away in the same box.
Utilizing French, Arabic and Corsican you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t require subtitles to watch this film, but this is something that also goes to the heart of the story and how we so often associate with that which is familiar and judge those who are different. It’s those of us that are able to rise above our differences and embrace them who come out on top. Perhaps what’s even more fascinating is that Audiard has used a prison-based gangster drama to get that point across, but to that point, where else could be better?
A Prophet is an art film as much as it is a genre film, and I would never paint it in one corner or the other. Audiard’s use of sound, occasional handicapping of the camera lens and his ability to work with Rahim to create a character that is not the stereotypically gun-wielding gangster and instead a boy on the path to becoming a man who simply took a road less traveled is to be commended. Malik has difficulty realizing his goals, step one is to stay alive and step two is something he’ll deal with when he’s confronted with it. The choice he makes, for better or worse, will define the outcome of his life.
He talks a tough game. He works for no one but himself. His innocence could get him killed just as well as it could earn favor with even the hardest of gangsters. Only in the final moments do we really get a sense Malik knows what he wants from this world. Throughout the story much of what comes to him comes without expectation, but once he learns how easy it is to get what you want that’s where the story is only beginning and A Prophet is rightly ending.