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Review: A Prophet

Jacques Audiard's Scarface for the new millennium
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 2, 2010
4.0 4.0 Stars

 

A Prophet | Directed by Jacques Audiard | Written by Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard, based on a screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit | with Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Reda Kateb, and Hichem Yacoubi | Sony Pictures Classics | French | 149 minutes
Visionaries thrive behind bars: Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. "The truth is ugly," explains one would-be sage, Charles Manson. "So we put our prophets in prison."

Nowadays, the truth is still ugly, but different, suggests French filmmaker Jacques Audiard in his harrowing, convulsive A Prophet, the Grand Prix winner at Cannes 2009. His prophet says little but, more and more, sees all. Accepting desolation, desperation, and moral compromise as a starting point, he hides behind seeming innocence, manipulates the cruelty, greed, and hatred of others, exploits those who would exploit him, and grows in power. He's the untermensch reborn as übermensch in a system where morals, ideology, individuality, macho bravura, revenge, and loyalty — the virtues of other mob and prison movies — have value only as tools and weapons. All is subordinate to resourcefulness, opportunism, survival, and domination.

The title seer is Malik El Djebena (a revelatory Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old processed into prison for some unspecified crime (assault on an officer?). Reduced to an iris frame, as if seen through the meshes of a grated window, he submits to the prison-initiation routine familiar from dozens of other movies: the strip search (he tries to hide a 50-Euro note in his ruined tennis shoe), the gantlet of hooting fellow cons, the first assault.

He's illiterate, parentless, Arab but without faith — a blank slate. Then he's offered a kill-or-be-killed deal he can't refuse by César (a chilling Niels Arestrup), reigning don of the joint's cadre of Corsican Mafiosi. Detailed like the procedures in Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, El Djebena's response is horrible and fascinating, and it ends in a kind of blood sacrifice.

Thus he is accepted by the Corsicans — but rejected by the Muslims, whose rival band hang out across the yard. As a dirty Arab, however, he is fit only to be a gofer for his new friends, and his relationship with César simmers with an underlying Oedipal conflict. But the Corsicans underestimate him — unnoticed, he takes in everything, and like Yojimbo, but with more sycophancy than swagger, he learns to play contending sides against each other and come out a winner.

Audiard shoots and edits with a jittery hand-held cinéma-vérité. The film is divided into chapters, most of them named after a character who serves as a rung on the ladder of El Djebena's rise — like Ryad (Adel Bencherif), the wanna-be family man who teaches him how to read, or Jordi (Reda Kateb), the drug runner who connects him with opportunities outside the prison walls. On rare occasions, Audiard will intrude a dream or fantasy sequence — the prophet's visions, perhaps, such as the ghost of a dead victim who keeps visiting him. In a more conventional film, this specter would be a manifestation of guilt. Here it seems a playful guide to the indifference of fate, the transcendence of divine will.

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