If I were to tell you that the movie of the year (admittedly, we are still only in January) is a prison drama, you might be forgiven for groaning at the thought of the numerous convict clichés, the jailhouse conventions that have become all too familiar: humiliating strip searches, simmering racial tensions, corrupt authorities, rampant drug use, violent beatings, etc, etc. It’s a (concrete) jungle in there! And yes, the French crime thriller “A Prophet” does contain all these old chestnuts, but this compelling tale forcefully takes you to a more imaginative place. Although it feels familiar, it’s a wholly original piece of work – the sort of thing you’ve seen before, but rarely done so well. Directed by the celebrated Jacques Audiard, this is an exhilarating, gripping film that will surely become a classic of the crime genre, taking its place alongside modern greats like “Scarface” and, whisper it gently, “The Godfather”.
“Un Prophète”, as they say the other side of La Manche, details the prison career of Malik el Djebena (played by impressive newcomer Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French lawbreaker of North African origin. Sentenced to six years, the new inmate tries to keep his head down, but the leader of the ruling Corsican gang, César (played with terrifying intensity by Niels Arestrup) makes him an offer that he literally can’t refuse. Caught between a (jailhouse) rock and a hard place, Malik is forced to murder a prisoner called Reyeb, who had offered him drugs in return for sex, but more importantly to the Corsicans is a potential witness against their crimes. As a result of this “bloody deed”, Malik comes under the protection of the Corsicans, gaining their trust and slowly, but surely, learning the ins and outs of their illicit operations. As the increasing numbers of Arabs in the prison begin to make their presence felt, Malik’s Muslim background enables him to also discreetly build networks with their gang.
"Warming the bench"
Captured with a cold-eyed clarity and a total lack of sensationalism, this is a hard-edged, painfully realistic portrayal of the brutal life within the dangerous prison corridors, the gritty authenticity ensured by the inclusion of non-professionals and former convicts in the excellent cast. Its lack of sentimentality brings to mind another Cannes favourite, the acclaimed Mafia movie, “Gomorrah”. Unflinchingly direct in the way it describes the constant struggle for survival that pervades the prison atmosphere, the film is equally as good at dissecting the various ways that power is obtained and manifested as it is in detailing the mind-numbing rituals and routines during the period of incarceration. There is a matter-of-fact, even cynical, approach to the corruption of the prison guards. In this dog-eat-dog world, it is taken for granted that the prison is actually run by a select band of dominant inmates, by dint of backhanders in both senses of the word.
Like “Taxi Driver”, the ever-present threat of violence explodes into vicious action in an unforgettable sequence of shocking brutality that will cause the most jaded observer to wince. The “cut him, Razors” moment comes when Malik uses a razorblade, uncomfortably hidden in his mouth, to slash the throat of the gay informant Reyeb. What makes this distressing scene even more uncomfortable is that Reyeb is the only prisoner to have shown Malik anything resembling kindness in the early days of his detainment, but Malik knows that if he doesn’t execute the Corsicans’ order, then his days will be numbered.
"Stick to your guns"
However, this film is so much more than a prison drama, with Audiard blending American toughness with a European documentary slant plus a host of stylistic flourishes, so that it also works as a gripping thriller and an unusually thoughtful social commentary. Much of the movie runs on a sense of sheer dread, as Malik walks an ever-lengthening tightrope, merely to stay alive. Constantly pushing against the bars of the standard jailhouse production, the director inexorably builds the tension within the walls, every frame loaded with menace, from the first lonely walk in the menacing prison yard to the work with the industrial sewing machines.
Most of the film is set within the claustrophobic confines of the penitentiary, but as the story develops, Malik is allowed to venture into the outside world via a series of day releases, which affords some relief to the growing feeling of apprehension. When Malik takes a plane for the first time on a flight to Marseille, we share his childish delight at the new experience, though his prison habits are never far from the surface, opening his mouth when scanned by security and grabbing several croissants when the trolley dolly walks past. However, life is just as dangerous on the outside, a stunning gunfight in a 4x4 being proof of that.
"Ready, Steady, Cook"
Echoing the slow-burning epic transformation of “The Godfather”, we accompany Malik on a mesmerising transformation from gauche young inmate to cunning criminal overlord. Originally happy to barely survive, Malik begins to cockily thrive, with his determined journey from a humiliated outsider wholly out of his depth to the very top of the criminal hierarchy reminiscent of “Scarface”. It’s not just the changing facial hair that marks out the young man’s development. Malik’s transition is total (physical, emotional and even spiritual) – he enters prison as a scared loner and leaves it an entirely changed character, quite literally scarred by the experience.
It’s an extremely aggressive awakening, with Malik’s rise through the underworld ranks stained with cruelty, as he negotiates his way through a treacherous maze of uneasy alliances, constantly adapting to new situations, always on the look-out for opportunities to build his own empire. Although the film is very long at 2 ½ hours, the leisurely pace is fully justified to do justice to Malik’s depraved development. In the early scenes, his nakedness emphasises his vulnerability, his eyes anxiously darting around him as he takes in the grim surroundings, but he leaves the prison with the jaunty walk of the Bee Gees singing the entirely appropriate “Staying Alive”.
"There Will Be Blood"
As Malik’s confidence grows, so does the film’s scope, encompassing education and redemption, though there is little of the schmaltzy morality found in another great prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption”. Just before his death, Reyeb dispenses some worldly advice to Malik, “You can’t read, right? It’s not too late. There’s a prison school. You can learn in here. My idea is to leave here a little smarter”. OK, it didn’t work out for him, but his killer takes heed of these wise words and embarks on a highly pragmatic form of self-improvement, a further education that was not available to him on the outside as an illiterate youth with no family or financial support.
As well as formal classes in reading, writing and economics (useful for his adventures in the narcotics business), he also secretly studies the Corsican language, so that he may surreptitiously learn about their dodgy deals. Prison proves an education in every sense, as he begins building valuable links with other members of the criminal fraternity: the soon-to-be-release family man Ryad, the drug-dealing gypsy Jordi (Reda Kateb from the superb French TV series “The Spiral”), and the Muslim brotherhood who he had initially rejected. Essentially, he observes the prison’s inner dynamics and fragile power structures, so that he may exploit them for his own advantage. If nothing else, he realises that everyone will do you a favour, as long as they get something in return.
"Strike a light"
Ironically, crime only begins to pay for Malik after he goes to prison, as he discovers many more opportunities for success than he ever had the other side of the bars. He is locked up for a relatively minor offence, arriving as an impressionable kid, but the harshness of prison life means that he ends up committing far worse crimes than he could have ever imagined, ultimately leaving the premises as a hardened murderer. In fact, everything that he learns only serves to make him a superior criminal, not a better human being.
In the central role of Malik, newcomer Tahar Rahim is a revelation, making his character not only believable, but also as sympathetic as could be, given his homicidal acts. It’s a wonderfully enigmatic performance, first playing the lead with solemn uncertainty, then developing a dumb childish swagger, before maturing into a confident, intelligent man, albeit an extremely violent man, before our eyes. As befits somebody keeping his head down, it’s an understated portrayal with little dialogue, though there’s real depth here, as Malik can express every emotion through his eyes: either quietly watching, deflecting pain or controlling rage. On screen throughout the movie, Rahim is not without conscience. Although he does what he has to do in the violent world he inhabits, he never loses his moral compass, suffering when faced with the many life or death decisions that confront him.
Rahim’s strength recalls the dark-eyed, brooding charisma of Romain Duris in Audiard’s last film, the equally brilliant “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”, another observational study of a young man of unusual focus. Hopefully, “A Prophet” will similarly act as a breakout vehicle for the extraordinary Rahim. In many ways, Audiard’s latest film feels like a continuation of his previous effort with Malik also caught between two worlds, just as the protagonist was in “The Beat” with music and crime, only this time having to chart his course between different ethnic groups. Another similarity is the transfer of power between generations, the comparison being more obvious as Niels Arestrup plays the father figure in both movies. The intimidating tone is more redolent of Audiard’s earlier, Hitchcockian piece “Read My Lips”, which featured Vincent Cassel from “Mesrine”.
Although the overall feel of the movie is über-realistic, Audiard permits himself a few stylish directorial flourishes, notably using bold captions over slow motion shots to highlight the arrival of key characters, who will play an important role later in the plot’s development, especially Malik’s transformation. From time to time, he also uses the ghost of Reyeb, the convict who Malik killed at César’s request, either as a reminder of his sin or as a vision that somehow foretells the future.
"Be my baby"
This is one of the few references to the film’s title with Malik’s prophet-like attributes seemingly more about his ability to find his way to the Promised Land than predicting events in advance. His charmed existence and knack for emerging unscathed from the most dangerous encounters may be ascribed to him doing God’s work, but there is only one occasion when he foresees the future in a dream, even though others believe that he has powers of prophecy after surviving a near-fatal car crash. Audiard himself has confirmed that there are no religious undertones to the title, “The prophet is just a prophet. As for Jesus or Mohammed, I don’t eat that kind of bread”.
The other huge performance in the film is delivered by Niels Arestrup, who plays the Corsican mobster as a mixture of world-weary wisdom and pent-up aggression. It’s not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s role in “The Departed”, but I couldn’t help also thinking of “Genial” Harry Grout in the seminal 70s sitcom “Porridge” and, bizarrely, Noel Coward’s portrayal of Mr. Bridger in the institution known as “The Italian Job” – maybe because of “The Self Preservation Society”, which is incredibly apposite for this movie, despite the vast disparity in tone. While there is an element of the mentor in the crime boss, it is very largely a chilling turn with César demanding Malik’s total obedience. This is despite the fact that the actor has an uncanny resemblance to the TV chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, which only makes sense when you see the way he makes use of a teaspoon – but not to stir his beverage. His relationship with Malik is less love-hate, rather “live-hate”, given that Malik clearly despises César, but has to work for him in order to keep breathing.
"Listen, do you want to know a secret?"
As a French Arab, Malik is a thoroughly modern hero that plays against national stereotypes, an inversion that Audiard claims was deliberate: “In French cinema you see Arabs in one of two contexts, either naturalistically in a social realist context, or in genre fiction playing a terrorist. We didn’t want that. We wanted our Arabs to be heroes”. It may be strange to describe an imprisoned killer as a hero, but you will find yourself willing Malik to succeed. As Audiard says, “Do we root for Michael Corleone in the Godfather films? I think so, even if he is a monster. In my film, I wanted to make a nice guy, just like you and me, who also kills, so you can identify with him. Keep away from black and white moralising”.
Audiard understands that “People have difficulty swallowing the fact that Malik is a survivor, but I think that’s because he’s an Arab character. They’re not used to seeing Arabs come out on top and they don’t like it, not in France anyway”. However, the director does agree that, “You don’t have to like heroes. The hero in my film is there to illustrate the capacity for resistance of the individual and his ability to make himself his own rules, his own life”. And that’s certainly true, whatever your cultural background.
"Concrete jungle, animals are after me"
Indeed, the prison could be considered as a microcosm of the racial conflicts within the broader French social order with Audiard explaining, “What interests me in this tale is that it’s a metaphor for society. It’s not all that different on the inside or the outside”. Actually, I think that most of us would be happier on the outside, but I take his point. Although Malik is accepted neither by his Corsican superiors, who call him a “dirty Arab”, nor by the Muslim gang members, in a strange way the film shows that a better future can be imagined with Malik a metaphor of what France could become – a curious mix of right-wing capitalism and left-wing multiculturalism. Even when Malik gets closer to the Muslim crew, it is nothing to do with religious fervour, but everything to do with “commercial” expediency.
In fact, the more you explore the themes in this film, the more it is about the individual, regardless of his background, a point that Rahim is particularly keen to stress: “This movie is not talking about changing the way we see the Arabs. It’s about taking a man who is homeless, who has no origin, and showing you that he is just a person first, before being Arab, or Corsican, or whatever. This man just wants to eat, sleep and drink. He is writing his own life”. Audiard is of the same opinion, “it is a parable of one man’s willingness to survive and prosper”.
“A Prophet” is an epic adventure, which may or may not have a significant meaning. Audiard himself has scoffed, “Of course it has no message – it is cinema”, which may be true, but it is undeniable that it is cinema at its very finest. Although I don’t always agree with cinema juries (see this week’s Golden Globes for numerous incorrect choices), the London Film Festival nailed it when they gave this movie their Best Film Award, with Anjelica Huston calling it “a masterpiece, an instant classic and a perfect film”. Right on, sister.