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A Prophet (Un prophète) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
15 02 2010

ImageDirected by Jacques Audiard

Following his success of 2005, The Beat My Heart Skipped, Audiard continues to bestride the art-house/mainstream divide with this latest, prison film and much more. As in that and his previous Sur Mes Levres, it's the world of crime that fascinates, what makes people do it, what it does to them, and its parallels in ‘normal' society. We first see protagonist Malik (Tahar Rahim) as a raw and scared teenager entering prison. With a background of petty crime, alone, rootless and illiterate, he's intent on keeping his head down, but comes to the notice of powerful prison crime boss César (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican who rules inside the bars in the mode of a mafia godfather.

Given an offer he can't refuse, Malik is forced to murder another Muslim inmate, the terror of which act continues to haunt him (and it packs a harrowing punch for the audience too). Thereafter he lives under the protection of Cesar, at the bottom of the pack as a Muslim, making his coffee and running errands. But simultaneously he is doing literacy classes, under the influence of family man Ryad (Adel Bencherif), and behaving himself in the eyes of the authorities, so that as his sentence plays out he is allowed out on day release. Like many who live on the streets he's an intelligent fast learner, and on his days outside he proves adept at criminal activities not only as an agent of Cesar but also on his own behalf. The balance of power alters significantly when a decree from Sarkozy allows Corsicans convicted of all but the most serious crimes to serve their sentences in Corsica, and César is deprived of almost all his support. Now he needs the once despised Malik, whose power grows, through his own wits, and as the Muslim presence now takes the high ground. The relationship steadily developing between the older and younger man is a complex one, so much so that when Malik finally gains the ascendancy it seems almost like a betrayal, and as in The Beat My Heart Skipped (where Arestrup also played an unlovable criminal father) the theme of complex father/son relations is painfully under scrutiny. There are seldom totally unsympathetic characters in Audiard , and even in the case of the brutal César, skillfully played by Arestrup, we do feel a twinge of sympathy.

The world of prison is here grittily modern with its release schemes, classes and poignant family visits, while still conveying the almost mythic squalor and underlying terror familiar from so many cinematic portrayals. At the same time it's a terrific, suspenseful thriller, its 150-odd minutes seldom dragging.

Veteran Arestrup and newcomer Rahim deliver blistering performances, particularly the latter, in his portrayal of a young man growing into his unsuspected capabilities, formed by both his intelligence and a sensitivity awakened, paradoxically, at the moment of committing the murder, which seems almost to provide him with subsequent spiritual strength and protection. Satisfyingly, the end is ambiguous, as Malik steps out into the real world, signifiers of his chance of ordinary happiness at his side, while the shadow of his potential criminality hovers behind.

See at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, January 2010

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