Jaques Audiard’s A Prophet | Prison Epic Anchored by Great Performance of Tahar Rahim

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, starring Tahar Rahim, won the Grand Prize at Cannes. (©2008 Rogert Arpajou, Sony Pictures Classics).

The French film A Prophet is by far the best movie I’ve seen in 2010. A masterful, brisk prison epic, A Prophet is anchored by the nuanced performance of Tahar Rahim, one so layered you can’t help but think of the ’70s work of De Niro and Pacino.

Malik El Djebena (Rahim) comes into prison as a scared, illiterate 19-year-old. No family, no friends, no skills, just a big gash on his face, a mess of hair, and what seems like no chance of surviving in a prison ruled by a brutal Corsican mafia and filled with discontent Muslims. Half Arabic and half French, Malik is ostracized by both sides, and soon the Corsicans pick him to kill a new inmate set to testify against their cohorts. If Malik refuses, the Corsicans will kill him. One of the first of Malik’s many tests, it leads to one of the most intense screen murders in history.

As the film progresses, Malik learns to read, to build alliances, and to do business in prison. He also begins to get day leaves (a French policy that allows prisoners to go out for the day and work jobs to rehabilitate them), where he starts doing business calls for the Corsicans, developing his own drug trade.

At 150 minutes long, A Prophet never feels boring or slow. It’s so effortlessly detailed and gritty, without being pretentious, and it takes a young kid’s criminal education (not dissimilar to The Godfather) as a sort of supercharged character study.

The movie is brilliantly shot, using opaque dream sequences to great effect. And the supporting characters—Luciana, the in-prison Corsican boss, and Reyeb, Malik’s cancer-stricken friend on the outside—are stellar, giving the film a latticed  network.

A Prophet feels like an instant classic. Occupying the same shivery moral terrain of The Godather, Goodfellas, and Straight Time, it shows that a great criminal requires hard work, circumstance, and talent. It’s exhilarating and, in some dark way, a feel-great movie. A

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