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Turning the triumph of spirit into the triumph of immorality, writer-director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) spins the prison drama genre on its head. The French filmmaker isn't interested in telling the tale of incarcerated men who struggle to achieve freedom and redemption (The Shawshank Redemption, The Bird Man of Alcatraz, Papillion). Instead, his Oscar-nominated A Prophet presents a twisted coming-of-age story where the only true outcome of a brutal prison system is death or dominance. Inch by inch, we watch as a troubled yet still innocent teen is corrupted into becoming a calculating criminal and, when needed, a coldblooded killer. Even then, my description doesn't do justice to the fascinating nuances and surprising vulnerabilities A Prophet gives its complicated anti-hero.
When Malik (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old of Arabic and Corsican descent, begins serving a six-year sentence for attacking a police officer (the details are never revealed), we quickly fear he won't last a week. Cornered by the sinister Cesar (Niels Arestrup), the aging boss of a Corsican gang, he's forced to assassinate Reyeb, a Muslim informer the gang can't reach. For the next two hours, A Prophet charts Malik's dark evolution from the Corsican's "dirty Arab" servant into a cunning, resilient and violently resourceful operator who outfoxes both his fellow inmates and the authorities. It's a tangled and sprawling plot that smartly keeps the focus on its protagonist's troubling transformation.
Constructed as a thriller, Audiard's film is less interested in depicting Malik as a traditional hero and more focused on his opportunistic maneuvering and brutally pragmatic approach to survival. The young Arab is thrown into the brutal Machiavellian culture of prison and ends up outwitting and outlasting his European enemies, but the director makes no moral judgments about his criminal choices, and avoids sentimentality at every turn.
It's refreshing to see an Arab character that isn't defined by his ethnicity. In fact, for Malik, identity is merely a tool through which he becomes a self-made man. Shifting between the world of the Corsicans and Muslims — but never fully belonging to either — he navigates a hard-to-understand moral code that may, or may not, be related to hallucinatory visions of his future. These mysterious prognostications allow the director to inject the cruel realities of his crime saga with expressionistic flourishes — including conversations with his first victim — that simultaneously reveal Malik's emotional and psychological state while suggesting he has some sort of divine ability (thus the film's ironic title). It's an interesting but not fully realized aspect to the story and, thankfully, Audiard doesn't belabor the point. A Prophet remains an underplayed allegorical fantasy that responds to the fact only 10 percent of France is Arabic, but Arabs make up two-thirds of its prison population.
From a genre perspective, however, the movie is tense, gritty and thrilling. Though it doesn't have The Godfather's operatic violence, Shakespearean drama or black humor, Audiard's crime saga is more effective at charting its protagonist's fall from, if not grace, ordinariness. Michael Corleone's corruption always felt contrived. Malik's feels authentically inevitable.
Audiard is also a hell of a stylist. His prison setting is dank, gray and detailed, filled with convincing specifics — the loaves of bread the prisoners eat, the misdirecting gestures and networks of everyday deception. His violence is delivered in short, shocking blows that rattle your nerves and elevate your heart rate — the best is a tight-quartered shoot-out in an SUV. Similarly, Stephane Fontaine's hand-held camerawork convincingly conveys the claustrophobia, sudden cruelty and vigilant immediacy of prison life.
And the cast is top-notch. Arestrup is pathetically venal as the aging crime boss while Rahim turns silence into profound expressiveness. Not only do you see this young man age before your very eyes, you can sense the moral conflicts that are roiling inside him, even as he's puzzling out how he'll move further up the prison food chain.
"The idea is to leave here a little smarter," Reyeb instructs Malik before Reyeb is killed. The teen takes that advice to heart, but what does it mean? Audiard's seemingly upbeat ending makes clear that, even upon release, Malik will never truly leave prison behind, that he will always harbor a monster within him. In a movie where nothing seems preordained, A Prophet convinces us that maybe it all is. Maybe Malik is not the title's prophet but rather it is France's prison society that plays oracle, forever transforming its inmates into smarter, more cunning criminals.
At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.