by George Sax
And you thought the county jail was bad: A Prophet
The idea that prisons are schools for crime as much as deterrents to it is hardly new in either life or art. But only very rarely has it been used with the kind of impact Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet does. Audiard’s honored film (Grand Prix at Cannes, France’s submission for the foreign language Oscar) is disturbing, and sometimes stunning, in its depiction of a young man’s very brutal education in survival in a French prison.
Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a 19-year-old French Arab of diffident demeanor who, when we first encounter him, is about to begin a six-year sentence for an unspecified offense. “You’re an adult,” his brusque lawyer tells him, by way of explaining his case, as he obtains Malik’s signature on a form that authorizes his fee.
The youth seems naïve for someone who’s been on his own since he was a child. When a prison guard asks if there’s anyone who will be wiring Malik money, he hesitates, then stammers there isn’t.
Malik’s modest demeanor remains throughout his years behind bars, but by their end it’s become a pose; he’s developed alarming predatory skills and become an illicitly enterprising guy. The shaping and hardening of his character is followed through Audiard’s taut, increasingly complex, plot-thickening film. The transformation begins early and crucially when Malik’s Arab identity and youthful appeal are noticed by Cesar (the chillingly effective Niels Arestrup, from The Bourne Ultimatum), a Corsican mobster who rules his own prison domain and a gang-run business empire outside the prison. Cesar tells Malik he must pretend to accept the sexual advances of another Arab the Corsicans want offed, and then kill him. Or be killed himself. This harrowing Hobson’s choice is anguishing for the terrified youngster, and it’s likely to harrow moviegoers too. In an almost too-pointed irony, Audiard has the unsuspecting intended victim give Malik some advice: “The idea is to leave here a little smarter.” If the film has any underlying point, this is it.
At first, Audiard seems to be working in a social realist mode, but even here his attention to his protagonist’s feelings and impressions goes beyond a clinical neutrality. And before long, he brings in elements of a fantastic subjectivity. These are diverting and sometimes striking, but they’re not consistently persuasive as representations of Malik’s troubled consciousness. Still, Audiard has sufficient mastery of his craft and his imagination to keep his film taut and involving even as he piles on details and plot turns as he goes, and the story line threatens to get away from an audience.
Malik’s very practical education in endurance and eventual success in this savage milieu remains compelling. Audiard previously tried to work out the conflict of crime’s allure and one young man’s evolving sensibility in 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Here, the circumstances make the conflict’s outcome all but certain. And Rahim’s artfully low-key and convincing performance binds the film’s complex, elusive narrative together.
When Malik exits the prison at the end, he appears a handsome, polite, deferentially smiling young man, not discernibly altered by his ordeals or adventures, except for a more confident manner. He’s like Dorian Gray without the portrait.
Watch the trailer for A Prophet
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