A Prophet – A Review

28 01 2010

A Prophet arrived in UK cinemas last week buoyed by the kind of critical and commercial success for which most film-makers would give their eye teeth. Jacques Audiard’s stark prison drama not only picked up awards at the Cannes and London Film Festivals, but has also been a surprise hit in France, with more than a million tickets sold to date.

The film tells the story of Malik (Tahar Rahim), a small-time criminal sentenced to a term of six years inside a tough French prison. Within days of starting his sentence, the young, vulnerable prisoner has been recruited by ageing Corsican mobster César (Niels Arestrup) to kill a fellow prisoner who has been lined up as a prosecution witness in an organised crime case. Whatever doubts Malik has about taking on this task are soon beaten out of him by the Corsican inmates and the prison warders who they control. He has a simple choice to make: kill or be killed. 

The murder, which happens early and brutally in the film, sets Malik on the path to becoming a full-time career crook. In prison he learns how to read and write, but also how to run a series of successful criminal enterprises both within and outside the walls of the jail. Rejected by his fellow Arabs, for whom he has already become too close to the Corsicans, Malik increasingly finds himself under the wing of César and his gang, who treat him with a mixture of affection and contempt. As their ‘little Arab’ he makes coffee and runs errands for them, all the while watching and learning the ropes like a dutiful protégé.

When Malik gets the chance to go outside the prison on day-leave he becomes truly useful to César, who himself has little prospect of release.  As the ‘errands’ he runs become more dangerous, the rewards become greater, and Malik insists to anyone who will listen that, like a budding entrepreneur, he’s ‘working for himself’. All the while though, his progress is being watched by the gradually-weakening mobster, for whom the young man is both a surrogate son and a threat. Also watching over him is the surprisingly benevolent ghost of the man he killed, who visits him for almost fraternal night-time chats in his cell.

A Prophet captures well the frustrations and harsh realities of life in prison today. Malik’s journey from small-time hoodlum to medium-level criminal is shown as not only an inevitable move but also as an intelligent one; as the best choice available to a resourceful young man under such circumstances. Even as he mires himself deeper in smuggling and violence, our sympathies seldom waver. What is he doing after all but learning a trade, and trying to better himself?

Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim in 'A Prophet'

As Malik rises, César falls, and the young man’s relationship with the increasingly isolated and miscalculating Corsican becomes the real subject matter of the film. We’ve been here before of course, with Audiard’s 2005 film The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which told a similar story of a strained ‘father-son’ relationship, from which escape for one meant disaster for the other.

There are moments of real, palpitating tension too: the various slicings and koshings and beatings that we see all seem horribly real. And is it during these, at some undetermined point, that we realise, and Malik himself realises, that moment-by-moment he is becoming a new César.

The possibility of redemption, when it arrives (and without giving too much away) is in the rather conventional form of a pretty young woman with a baby. And this is where, I think, for all of its carefully-observed realism and its white-knuckle suspense, A Prophet hits a bit of a brick wall.

Above all, you see, Audiard’s film is a genre movie. It may be a very good genre movie, but it’s one that seems content to stay comfortably within the confines that it has set for itself. However well-crafted its scenes then, it is always reminiscent of other films, of characters and situations that we already know well. The prison whack-job for example, reminded me of nothing more than the 1989 Tom Selleck film An Innocent Man. The corrupt guards, the politics of the prison yard, ‘the hole’: these are all, to a greater or lesser extent, clichés well-worn in dozens of prison movies, from Escape From Alcatraz to The Shawshank Redemption.

A great film would transcend these clichés, or avoid them altogether; A Prophet merely updates them and gives them a new, gritty setting. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good film, or an effective recreation of prison life, just that, in the grand scheme of things, it limits itself somewhat.

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8 responses

29 01 2010
Paul Wiseman

I agree that the film did set itself constraints within the confines of the genre prison movie because that’s what it is, a classic prison romp. The fact that Audiard has no pretensions of this film being anything other than a tense, brutal thriller gives it a clear focus in telling the story of Malik’s rise and presenting us with one of the most realistic depictions I have ever seen of the gangs, hierarchies and characters that exist behind (French)prison walls.

I implore you, Kieron to tell me how a film set in a prison could possibly avoid these ‘clichés’ when they are so integral to prison life. For me, most of them are transcended by the way the prisoners are shown to have a certain freedom and control within the prison and the guards, for the most part, are pretty faceless and anonymous. Cells are open, with TVs and friends call by when they feel. The biggest prison cliché this avoided was the always showing the prisoners hemmed-in or behind bars and dominated by the guards. Being constantly visited by the ghost of the man he killed was the only cliché I didn’t like in this film and thought it could have easily done without.

30 01 2010
kieronclark

I think part of the problem for me was that A Prophet seemed to be too much of a self-conscious attempt to make a ‘classic’, well-structured film. At certain points, I felt, you could almost see the joins. For example in the last twenty minutes you have Malik out-foxing César, then contriving to have himself thrown into ‘the hole’ while the shit hits the fan. Then you have that scene with César being Billy-no-mates in the prison yard which, I thought, was a little obvious. And worse is the final scene where Malik has to make an instant choice between going off with the goons in cars or the pretty, redemptive widow. Surely there could have been a better, less blatant way of dramatising the possibilities open to him?

I did enjoy A Prophet but, as with The Beat That My Heart Skipped, found myself a little bemused as to the rave reviews it’s been getting. Maybe I just don’t get on with Jacques Audiard’s scripts, although he is obviously a very talented guy.

31 01 2010
Paul Wiseman

I felt the same as you did with The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

I thought the Billy-no-mates scene was symbolic by the way that random guys were sat on his bench when he came out.

I hope I ain’t bigging the film up too much because it’s not a 10/10 classic as some reviewers have suggested but I did quite enjoy watching it, as you did.

One scene I didn’t get was when he first met Lattrache who wanted to know who killed his mate Reyeb, then a dead deer and he tells him that he killed him and he’s his best mate after that.wtf

31 01 2010
kieronclark

I think the idea was maybe that there’s a higher honour among thieves, and that bid’niz is bid’niz no matter who’s whacked who. Or maybe Lattrache just appreciates Malik’s honesty. Still, it’s certainly a tense scene, what will all the shooting at deer and stuff.

7 02 2010
imajez

Regarding the final scene. I read it as Malik walking the widow to the bus stop after she turned him down by refusing a lift in a flash car. Malik’s goons in said flash cars simply followed him as he did so.
So she may like him as a friend, or she may be something more. Not quite a Hollywood ending.

A good film in my view, but not a great film. I may have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t heard the film hailed as a masterpiece/film of the year etc… as it was hard to live up to the hype.

So when are you reviewing Avatar?

7 02 2010
kieronclark

Yeah, I think part of the problem I had was that it had been hyped up so much. Which isn’t the fault of the film-makers of course. I enjoyed A Prophet a lot, but never quite saw what all the fuss was about…

As for Avatar, well I think there’s probably enough comment about that out there already.

25 08 2010
Mia Dallas

Still wondering about the final scene. I interpreted the cars following Malik as the revenge of the Corsican leader that he snubbed at the end. I feel that it is saying that they will get him in the end. Any comments?

23 12 2011
shafique

No offense, but i think your interpretation of the last scene might be a lil off. the men in the cars are part of Malik’s gang. the main Corisian leader is Jacky Marcooni, not Cesar in Prison. After malik kills Jacky’s bodyguards and drags him into a van he lets him know that Cesar plotted a plan to kill him so the next day in prison while malik is in the hole Jacky has the 5 or 6 Corisians killed in prison. I think he doesn’t kill Cesar because now he’s all alone in the prison with noone to protect him and he’ll die a sad death. And the last scene..if you look closely the men in the 3 cars are all arabs and they were waving to him and happy to see him. They are all the Imam’s men…some might have been in prison with Malik. and this makes the last scene the sickest in the whole movie. Malik now holds a high position in the gang which he built with trust. He sees Jamila with the kid and he decides to walk a little with them while the 3 cars (like the prophet’s followers) slowly follow his steps. another small funny thing i noticed is that Jamilla probably doesn’t know that Malik now is a high profile gang leader..so when they were walking together, you can see Malik takes a quick look behind him. when he sees the cars he has an embarrassed look on his face (probably cuz he’s still humble) and he wouldn’t want jamila to turn around and start asking questions. just my thoughts

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