Saturday, August 28, 2010
There’s an old argument that troubled kids only truly learn to be criminals once they’re sent to prison. Jacques Audiard’s 2009 film A Prophet takes this idea to its logical extreme, showing us how a French Muslim named Malik (the excellent Tahar Rahim) turns from a naïve street thug into a mafia kingpin during a seven-year stint in the joint. It’s a sprawling film (among other things, it’s been compared to both The Godfather and the epic TV series The Wire), and Audiard never misses a step in his depiction of the intrigue and violence of the French prison system. It’s only when he tries to build a larger thematic arc around his story that he falters—but as an engrossing crime thriller, A Prophet is near perfect.
Tahar Raheem plays Malik El Djebena, an orphaned street kid who’s sentenced to a seven-year prison sentence for attacking a police officer. Once on the inside, he’s approached by a group of Corsican mafiosos led by Cesar Luciani (Niel Arestrup), and forced to perform a hit on an Arab snitch. From there, wide-eyed Malik ingratiates himself to the prison’s criminal element, serving as the “eyes and ears” of Cesar’s outfit by moving seamlessly between the Muslim and Italian inmates.
Audiard’s style is impeccable, especially in the way that he constructs the prison’s hierarchy. He never throws his audience a lifeline to easily understand the narrative, but the immediacy provided by his camerawork and the seamless editing by Juliette Welfing ensure that the audience is never too overwhelmed. Unlike a lot of crime films, the pace here never gets bogged down in details or unnecessary exposition. For Audiard, action is story, and as Malik continues to perfect his reputation as a criminal operator, the film only keeps raising the stakes. Once Malik starts getting day-long work releases for good behavior, the intensity of the story ratchets up considerably, showing how our hero manages to pull of it assassinations and prisoner exchanges by day, only to return to the safety of a prison cell at night.
The film’s greatest asset is its performances, particularly from Raheem, Arestrup, and Adel Bencherif as Ryad, Malik’s contact on the outside. Raheem’s performance is especially impressive considering that we’re never given much information about who Malik is or what motivates him. He arrives in jail as a blank slate, and it’s only through the things he does and the decisions he makes that we begin to understand the breadth of his conviction and ambition. He’s nearly matched by Arestrup as Cesar, the slick old lion of the Corsican mafia, who manages to be at turns both despicable and utterly pathetic. The relationship between he and Malik serves as a lynchpin for the majority of the film’s character-based drama, and despite Cesar’s cruelty, there is something almost heartbreaking about the way things end between them.
Audiard’s approach to constructing his criminal underworld is impeccable, but he plays fast and loose with his themes, and his attempt to construct some sort of overarching thesis around Malik’s actions never quite pans out the way it should. For example, the fantasy sequences between Malik and the ghost of Ryeb, the man he kills early in the film, add almost nothing, and a series of scenes that try to establish Malik as the “prophet” of the title are particularly muddled. But as a portrait of the prison system and the inner workings of the criminal underworld—that is, as an intensely realized, dynamic genre film—A Prophet is unmatched. It may not add up to more than the sum of its parts, but those parts prove to be more than enough to build a compelling film.