|Director: Jacques Audiard
|Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard (based on an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit)
|Stars: Tahar Rahim (Malik El Djebena), Niels Arestrup (César Luciani), Adel Bencherif (Ryad), Hichem Yacoubi (Reyeb), Reda Kateb (Jordi), Jean-Philippe Ricci (Vettori), Gilles Cohen (Prof), Antoine Basler (Pilicci), Leïla Bekhti (Djamila), Pierre Leccia (Sampierro), Foued Nassah (Antaro), Jean-Emmanuel Pagni (Santi), Frédéric Graziani (Chef de detention), Slimane Dazi (Lattrache), Rabah Loucif (L'avocat de Malik), Serge Boutleroff (Le juge d'application des peines), Hervé Temime (Le procureur), Taha Lemaizi (Hassan)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 2009
|Country: France / Italy
In his quietly stunning performance as a French teenager of Arab descent spending six years in prison, Tahar Rahim looks not unlike a thinner, more intense Danny McBride, and his nervous, awkward mannerisms reminded me of McBride’s small, but crucial role in David Gordon Green’s lyrical All the Real Girls (2003), in which he played a soft-spoken, not particularly bright young man on the margins of society. And, for a significant portion of the 155 minutes of Jacques Audiard’s powerful saga A Prophet (Un prophète), it would seem than Rahim’s Malik El Djebena is a similar character, which is precisely why the film is so disarming and absorbing.
A quiet, illiterate teen with no family or friends when he is first incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, Malik would seem to be a born victim (socially, economically, legally, interpersonally, etc.), and he spends his first year in the tank being victimized, specifically by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the hardened leader of a Corsican gang who rules the prison with violence and intimidation (it also helps that he has many of the prison’s guards in his pocket). César recruits Malik to kill another Arab prisoner named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi)--well, recruit isn’t the right word since it is a Godfather-ish “offer he couldn’t refuse”: kill or be killed. The scene in which Malik does the deed is testament to Audiard’s seriousness in undercutting cinema’s typical romanticization of criminals. Pulling a razor from inside his mouth (a move we have watched him practice over and over again with squirm-inducing, painful results), Malik clumsily attacks Reyeb and, after much awkward struggle, slices his jugular; there is no grace to the action itself, and Audiard films it with handheld jitteriness that suggests a complete absence of control. The aftermath, with Reyeb bleeding out on the prison floor and Malik quivering on the bed haunts us for the rest of the film, and it haunts Malik, as well, as Reyeb becomes a ghostly presence he can never shake. It is a baptism in blood.
Audiard’s sustained use of gritty naturalism feels entirely appropriate here and elsewhere, although he doesn’t rely on it like a one-trick pony, and instead incorporates a number of aesthetic flourishes such as slow motion, a subjective soundtrack, and even the old silent film trope of irising in on a particular detail to enhance the storytelling. The thrust of the narrative, written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from on an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, follows Malik’s “education” during his six years in prison. He takes part in the social-liberal prison education agenda, learning to read and write and ostensibly earning a degree so that he will be a better person on the way out, prepared to contribute to the society that needed to lock him away (we never know exactly what crime he committed to earn his sentence, but it isn’t hard to imagine that it wasn’t much and he was punished for being young, illiterate, and brown). Yet, his real education comes from César and his gang, who use him as a servant and errand boy (but never as one of them, as he is still a “dirty Arab”), which allows him to observe their operations and learn their ways. Malik is a quick study, and that is his greatest asset; he is not strong or tall or imposing in any way physically, and he doesn’t come across as particularly bright or clever. Yet, at every moment he is quietly, silently learning, and he puts that to use in his own operations, specifically working with two other men, one serving time with him and one who was recently released for health reasons, to smuggle hash into the prison. The story’s fundamental tragedy is that, whatever kind of criminal he was coming in, he will be a much better, more sophisticated one going out because otherwise he never would have survived.
A Prophet, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was France’s official entry for the Oscars, works largely because Audiard doesn’t hit us over the head the film’s lessons. He assumes that we, like Malik, can glean the essence of what’s important by watching and studying, and he keeps the film’s thematic material deeply interwoven into the narrative, which means he avoids speeches and declarations and obvious signs pointing to “what it all means.” If different viewers come away from the film with different interpretations--some see it as a broad metaphor for the nature of power, others see it as a political commentary on the relationship between France and its North African immigrants, while still others see it as a social critique of the failures of the justice and penal systems--the film is all the stronger for it. It is all of those things and more.
Yet, for all its thematic weight, A Prophet is ultimately a character study, and a brilliant one at that. Malik is a fascinating central figure precisely because he doesn’t immediately grab your attention. César is by far a more grizzled-glamorous, movie-made character, with his sleek patriarchal stature and volcanic temper making his every second on film nerve-wracking and attention-demanding, but Audiard recognizes that Malik is the more crucial figure because he is the canvas on which the story is painted. He goes through a significant transformation from the first frame to the last, and in between we watch his true potential unfurl in the heated furnace of survival. What emerges at the end is something of an enigma: We’re not sure what to make of him and the choices he has made. Thus, A Prophet is the rarest of crime films: One that turns us inside out with concern not only for Malik’s physical safety, but for the safety of his soul.
|A Prophet Blu-Ray|
French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
German DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
|Subtitles||English, French, German, Turkish|
Audio commentary by director Jacques Audiard, actor Tahar Rahim and co-writer Thomas Bidegain.
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 3, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|A Prophet’s presentation in 1080p high-definition is excellent, with a sharp, well-detailed image that maintains a generally pleasing level of film grain and avoids any overt digitizing or artifacts. The film’s overall palette is relatively subdued, consisting primarily of the industrial grays, browns, and sickly greens of prison life, although when they are moments of strong color (such as when Malik sees the ocean on one of his days off), the hues are strong and pop off the screen with appropriate intensity. The lossless 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack also does not disappoint, with excellent clarity, directionality, and separation, as well as a strong low end that is particularly crucial in a gunfight near the end when Malik loses much of his hearing and we are put into his distorted aural experience.
|Director Jacques Audiard, actor Tahar Rahim and co-writer Thomas Bidegain recorded a relaxed, informative screen-specific audio commentary together in which they bounce memories and ideas off each other, resulting in a rich, engaging experience that significantly enhances one’s appreciation of the film (I was surprised, for example, to learn that the entire prison is a set, rather than the real thing). Also included on the disc are four deleted scenes, which run about 10 minutes total, five screen tests for Tahar Rahim, rehearsal footage of four different scenes, and the U.S. theatrical trailer.
Overall Rating: (4)
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment