Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

A Prophet


Review by Eoin O’Faolain

Like the war film, the crime film feels like a dried-up old hag of a sub-genre. How many more assassinations, betrayals, and prison scenes can we endure, especially when HBO, who produced three of the best TV shows dealing with crime (The Wire, The Sopranos, Oz) and, excusing the pun, killed the crime movie stone dead? What we have seen since is a slate of average at best films that veer towards explosions and loud noises, possibly in fear that the use of drama will only pale in comparison to their TV counterparts. And France appears to see a resurgence of their 70’s tough-guy crime flicks, with the likes of the 2-part Mesrine film. And while Mesrine mostly fit into that ‘average’ category, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the Oscar-nominated A Prophet to be an utter joy to watch.

In plot, the film appears to be nothing more than middle-of-the-road. A young man from an immigrant background, Malik, is thrown in prison for six years. Almost immediately he’s preyed upon by thieves and sexual predators. But worst of all, an entrepreneurial Corsican gangster known as Cesar sees the potential in using Malik to get access to the “Arab” section of the jail. And so Malik must decide to kill the enemy of the Corsican or face being killed for disobeying. But Malik turns the table himself, and begins to develop a drug business through his multiple connections.

Director Jacques Audiard has found a true star in newcomer Tahar Rahim. Rahim manages to convey both a conniving thug and a vulnerable kid at the same time, constantly unsure of whether to choose the moral life or exact revenge on those who hurt him. The initial scenes of the film where Malik wrestles with his conscience are powerful, as is his reaction to a murder committed later. It’s refreshing to see the tough-guy façade gradually build and solidify as opposed to assuming it’s constantly there in a criminal. But Audiard deserves accolades also. He manages to combine the gritty reality of prison life while also inserting a certain subjectivity without causing a tonal clash. Throughout the moviem Malik shares his cell with one of his victims, not as some ghastly apparition, but rather as a visual reminder of his uneasy conscience. The film also manages to present an emotional side to the story with a sub-plot involving cancer.

Yet despite this, the film ends on a sour note. It seems that Audiard (who also wrote the script) got so caught up in his character that he himself forgot the morality of his tale. The film is so invested in Malik’s rise that there’s no sense of consequence from leading such a life. There’s no sense of tragedy that we get in The Godfather, no sense of failure that we get in Goodfellas, or sense of “live by the sword, die by the sword” that we see in the Mesrine films. It almost makes Malik to be a hero. Sure, you can argue that we alone can infer the immorality of the situation, but with A Prophet the director needs to show us he’s aware of it too. And even the moments of conscience, driven by the previously mentioned visions, trail off without any narrative resolution.

And so we’re left with a film with a powerful first half, one that is both scary and moving and most importantly, it feels real. But the film feels too long after the second hour, and despite the film’s superior qualities, the closing moments can only leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

3 ½ / 5 stars

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