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The Independent Critic

Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler
Jacques Audiard
Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard
Rated R
155 Mins.
Sony Classics
Language- French, Portuguese, Spanish w/Subtitles;
Dolby Digital 5.1; Color; Special features include commentary,
deleted scenes, rehearsal footage and more

 "A Prophet" Review 
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Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a rather naive 19-year-old Arab Muslim when he enters a French prison to serve a six-year-stint in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, an excellent follow-up to The Beat That My Heart Skipped.  It's not that crime was anything new for the 19-year-old, but his relatively petty youthful adventures had ill-prepared him for the life-changing experience of spending his young adult years in a very adult prison.

Malik, who proves to be a rather studious and attentive observer of all things related to human behavior, quickly realizes that among the prison's Corsican, Arab and African populations it is the Corsicans who are clearly in charge of the facility and, to a degree, those who run it. After successfully defending his turn in an early physical encounter, he's approached by the Corsican mob boss, Cesar (Niels Arestrup). The two form a respectful, if uneasy, alliance in which Malik is essential a "gofer" for the Corsicans but in return he's fiercely and fervently protected while also learning such basic life skills as how to read and write.

As bloody and relentless as is A Prophet, and it is, the film is also a remarkable coming-of-age story in which a young man enters prison as a shy, insecure man whose life inside the prison becomes his defining existence. It is, in essence, a validation of the idea that prison does not rehabilitate its prisoners but instead creates even more hardened. Indeed, this is what occurs with Malik. He enters prison as an unshaped blob, a "dirty Arab" but becomes yet another presence of evil who is neither Corsican, who consider the Arabs "dirty," nor Arab, as the Arabs now resent his alliance with the Corsicans. He is called upon early in the film, as a test if you will, to murder another prisoner who is set to testify against the Corsicans. He is taught how to do so and given the circumstances that will allow it to happen. Watching Rahim's portrayal of the youthful Malik as he almost does a shapeshifting exercise in becoming a killer is absolutely mesmerizing.

A Prophet was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Award, and it is a nomination that is easily understandable. The film also won the Grand Jury Prize during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and swept the 2009 Cesar Awards. The overwhelming promise that Audiard displayed in The Beat That My Heart Skipped is brought vividly to life here in a film where the characters closely resemble those in The Godfather but where the action, the pacing and the sheer intensity of the characters brings to mind Scarface.

As a director, Audiard does not spoonfeed his audiences, instead allowing his story and his characters to remain abstract. So often, a filmmaker will direct in such a way that the script itself becomes a narcissistic condescension in which the audience is told what to think, what to feel and what to expect. In A Prophet, Audiard leaves Malik as an enigma of sorts. By the time Malik begins to be defined by his circumstances, it becomes clear that he is observing what is required of him to survive and thrive in this torturous environment. Yet, it never becomes completely clear exactly what Malik is thinking and feeling, only that who he is becoming is directly resulting from it.  Eventually, as Malik begins to test the waters in an effort to break out on his own, the suspense in A Prophet is breathtaking.

Both Rahim and Arestrup, who also starred in Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, are stellar here with Rahim being the more complex character but Arestrup's performance perhaps being the more mesmerizing, unforgettable of the film. They are surrounded by a remarkable supporting cast, as well.

Epic in its framework and yet stunning in its detail, Jacques Audiard's A Prophet is one of the finest prison sagas in recent years.

Nearing the end of its arthouse run, A Prophet arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Classics on August 3, 2010.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic