The French masterwork A Prophet is nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, and has already won the same category in the British film awards.
In Cannes 2009, Jacques Audiard’s film finished second to The White Ribbon, which took the Palme d’Or. Win or lose any award, and A Prophet is still a stunning cinematic experience.
I mention the citations only to place an emphasis on the film’s impact. It looks like a genre piece, an action picture set mostly inside French prison walls. There is intense violence: One murder scene is so graphic that even Audiard has to turn away while watching. In brief scenes outside prison, there are shoot-outs after drug deals go wrong and Mafia turf is being contested.
But genre is not an end in itself. It is a vehicle for Audiard and his brilliant screenwriter, Thomas Bidegain, to get somewhere else. Somewhere universal and classic and enlightened.
A Prophet (Un Prophet is its French language title) plays in French, Corsican and Arabic, with English subtitles, but it speaks to the world. It is an extraordinarily powerful metaphor for our modern, racially charged, violent society.
Despite the claustrophobic setting, the big-picture issues are evident as Audiard and Bidegain weave a fictional yet realistic tale about the fate of a young Muslim (Tahar Rahim) who learns how to survive and then thrive during his six-year prison term.
He begins his ordeal as a naive, defenceless victim who becomes a lackey for the Corsican mob that runs one wing of the prison. They operate under the brutal regime of Cesar (Niels Arestrup). But our empathetic Muslim anti-hero emerges later as something else altogether.
The deliberate invocation of the word “prophet” suggests something on a higher spiritual plane, and that is explored with great delicacy and emotion, especially when our Muslim is haunted by guilt and a ghost over one of his acts. At the same time, the moral dilemmas that the film raises are so caustic, so toxic, so damned important to all society that the film is a launching point for a vociferous debate on crime and punishment.
And, to emphasize, these are not purely French, or Corsican, or European concerns. This is a story about the human condition.
Yet, at the same time, A Prophet works exceptionally well just as genre. You go for the wild ride with Rahim, as his character (our surrogate) negotiates the complex world of prison society. You do not have to think outside this box until the epic-length film ends. There are plenty of familiar prison motifs explored in various scenes, from the imposition of sexual favours, to the tribalism inherent in every prison movie ever made.
What distinguishes A Prophet, however, is its ability to elevate genre to electrifying art. It helps, of course, that the ensemble is so powerful, so believable. While many extras are played for realism by ex-cons, Rahim is simply amazing as he becomes our spiritual-guide through the prison jungle. and Niels Arestrup is absolute perfection as the arch villain.
Nothing is wrong and nobody messed up: A Prophet is almost a perfect film about an imperfect world.
A PROPHET/UN PROPHET
RATING: 4.5 stars
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 35 minutes
DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard
STARS: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup