Review

A Prophet

Director    Jacques Audiard
Starring    Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Jean-Emmanuel Pagni, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci
Release    12 FEB (US) 22 JAN (UK)    Certificate 18
5 stars

Matt

7th February 2010

There are lots of things you can do with a long-term prison sentence: you can tie a knot in your shirt and reassess your sexuality, you can use a rock hammer to tunnel behind a poster of Raquel Welch, or, if you are anything like A Prophet's Malik, you can slowly build contacts to become a badass gang boss.

As the winner of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix award, as well as now being Oscar-nominated for 2010 Best Foreign Language Film, it is easy to pre-empt the kind of hard-hitting tone and gritty characterisation contained within A Prophet. But, in addition to the usual award-winning fare, this film also manages to feel entirely fresh and original.

The story follows Malik (Tahar Rahim), a young Arab man who, whilst serving a six-year jail sentence, gets taken under the wing of CÚsar (Niels Arestrup), the ruthless kingpin of the prison's leading Corsican gang. Initially working as a lackey, Malik gains CÚsar's trust and is given responsibilities within the gang (including eventual trips outside), which he uses to surreptitiously build his own criminal empire.

Director Jacques Audiard presents not only a compelling morality tale of corruption and crime syndication, but also a stark insight into life in a Gallic prison. As Malik is initially forced to face both sexual and racial abuse, as well as territorial bullying, he takes advantage of the few opportunities available to him, including finally learning to read and write and picking up Corsican to improve his own situation. To this end, Audiard weaves an inspiring story of triumph in the face of adversity, even if that triumph is ultimately manifested in Malik becoming a killer and drug lord.

[gallery]Along the way, the film allows time to explore the finer points of Malik's journey, ranging from one truly horrific scene where he practices hiding a razor in his mouth (the first time I've had to cover my eyes during a film in years), to a moment of dark humour where Malik is routinely searched at an airport and he sticks out his tongue as if undergoing one of his more-familiar prison checks. With these deft touches, applied with a subtle attention to detail, we are presented with an altogether more thorough depiction of your average criminal rags-to-riches tale.

And yet, Audiard isn't so committed to the story at hand that he doesn't have some fun with the narrative; at times, the plot descends into utterly surreal moments, where Malik converses with the ghost of Reyeb, an Arab inmate whom he was ordered to kill by CÚsar. The spirit appears as an ambivalent addition to Malik's prison life rather than a Macbethian symbol of guilty conscience - he signifies Malik's indelible descent into a larger world of sin.

These few fantasy sequences, along with our protagonist's incredible foresight (hinted at as being supernatural) help to elevate his heroic status within the film, but credit goes to actor Tahar Rahim for playing the part throughout with both confidence and naivety, helping to sell the 'out-of-his-depth' undertones. The movie rests on Rahim's shoulder and the fact that the audience roots for this rising criminal underdog at all is down to his performance.

Almost a year on, however, and the bigger crime (see what I did there) is that A Prophet has only received minimal attention at the Academy Awards. When there is a story this uncompromising, which still impresses on every level, it is a shame that its Best Foreign Language nod, as with all those Hollywood-loving nay-sayers, highlights the only insignificant obstacle: the subtitles.

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