A Prophet (Un Prophète)

One of the great things about genre films is that once in a while someone comes along and subverts that genre. Not always entirely but just enough that it's noticeable. Sometimes it is barely perceptible at first but slowly and surely it becomes clear just how clever the subversion is. A Prophet is one such film.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) has been sentenced to six years in prison He is 19 years old, illiterate and has no friends or family on the outside. Toughened by life on the streets, he is nevertheless scared in his new environment and is soon spotted by older Corsican inmate Cesar (Niels Arestrup) as an ideal candidate to do some dirty work for him. There is no moral dilemma for Malik though - if he doesn't kill fellow Arab Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) he himself will be killed.

What unfolds as events play out is unexpected but only in the most subtle ways. This is not the usual story of a young hoodlum having a tough time before eventually gaining respect. In fact, although he is clearly trying to use his time inside to his advantage, it seems as though Malik is not really making any progress at all with regards to the relationship he has with Cesar. If it is a father-son relationship, it's not a healthy one, and if it's one based on power Malik doesn't appear to be winning it.

Director Jacques Audiard won the Grand Prix at Cannes for A Prophet and his storytelling technique is so polished you can see why. Plot and character exposition are revealed drop by drop, drawing you into a perfectly constructed and utterly believable grey and cold prison world filled with haunting echoes and the smell of fear. Audiard's crowning glory though is the sequence leading up to Malik's attempt on Reyeb's life, during which the director cranks up the tension to an excruciating level. It's almost impossible to watch, the emotional pressure is so great.

Huge credit must also go to Rahim who is tremendous throughout, alternately cocky and twitchy as he slaloms his way through the minefield of prison life. But it's in the aforementioned sequence of events that he really excels, displaying precisely the desperation, anguish, anxiety and horror that anyone with any kind of moral compass at all would feel in the face of such a task.

The Prophet is the sort of quietly gripping human drama that by eschewing traditional characters, and a showy, happy ending (not to mention being in French, with subtitles) will probably not be seen by the majority of the movie-going public. Which is a shame because although this is a somewhat arduous story for the soul, there are elements of redemption in there. A mighty fine film which lingers long in the memory.

Official Site
A Prophet at IMDb

Justin Bateman is a Screenjabber contributor

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