Finding honor among hardened criminals
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, March 12, 2010
The French director Jacques Audiard came to most American filmgoers' attention for 2005's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," his remake of James Toback's "Fingers" that had the rare distinction of being much better than the original. With the mesmerizing prison drama "A Prophet," Audiard delivers on and exceeds the promise he evinced in that earlier film, drawing viewers into the densely layered, ruthless ecology of a French prison and, against all odds, making them not mind staying there awhile.
The audience enters the nameless prison in "A Prophet" at the same time as the film's protagonist, a 19-year-old of Arab descent named Malik (Tahar Rahim). Quiet but bristling with latent physical toughness, Malik immediately defends his turf when two inmates try to steal his sneakers; soon he's approached by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), the leader of a Corsican gang that runs the jail as its own domain, including guards on the take. Although Cesar mistrusts the Muslims who are beginning to outnumber his own minions in the prison, he comes to trust Malik, who in the course of serving a six-year sentence learns not only the ways of crime and revenge, but also how to read and write.
Such are the ironies that keep "A Prophet" absorbingly off-balance, as Malik navigates a universe in which he's both a consummate outsider -- he's scorned by the Corsicans and Muslims alike -- and a savvy initiate into its roughest, most exacting rites. Although these aren't characters with whom filmgoers will have an instinctive rooting interest, Rahim and Arestrup imbue them with fascinating nuances and, in Rahim's case, surprising vulnerability.
Among the director's strengths are his eye for great faces and his unfailing ear for music, which here ranges from blues and rap to Jimmie Dale Gilmore and an exquisitely orchestrated musical score. Most important, "A Prophet" (nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film) manages to delve deep inside the ritualized violence and honor codes of criminals without romanticizing what is essentially a brutish, bankrupt life.
Although "A Prophet" for the most part transpires in the cramped, hopeless confines of Malik and Cesar's cell blocks, the film possesses an improbably expansive, even cosmopolitan spirit. Audiard joins such dazzling filmmakers as Fatih Akin, Ramin Bahrani, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck in engaging a far wider and more lively world than most of their contemporaries.
Filmgoers may not know exactly what they're hoping for as Malik makes the choices that will either doom or save him, but they will find themselves caring deeply about the outcome. This is a vivid, assured film that straddles realism and dream states as audaciously as Malik straddles his own competing identities.
Contains strong violence, sexual content, nudity, profanity and drug material. In French, Arabic and Corsican with English subtitles.