Sony // 2009 // 155 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 26th, 2010
The story of a young man's rise to power.
"Your freedom belongs to me."
Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim, La Commune) is a young Arab man who has just been incarcerated in a French prison. Shortly after his arrival, Malik is given a challenging assignment by Cesar Luciana (Niels Arestrup, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), the Corsican mob boss who runs things both inside and outside the prison. Cesar wants Malik to kill another Arab prisoner who is about to testify in court. Malik initially resists, but Cesar quickly makes it clear that the assignment is not a request: "If you don't kill him, I'll have to kill you." Malik finally gives in, firmly cementing his place in the ranks of "the bad guys."
As time passes, Malik works his way up Cesar's organization, gaining knowledge, skill and power along the way. Cesar is quietly impressed with his new assistant, but after a time it begins to look as if the power is shifting. Will Cesar maintain control of his empire or will Malik pull the rug out from under him?
Jacques Audiard's A Prophet has been hailed as a modern-day equivalent of The Godfather by a number of critics, but I'm hesitant to throw such a comparison out there. For one thing, comparing A Prophet to The Godfather sets up certain expectations about (A) what kind of film it will be and (B) how remarkably high-quality it's going to be. To be sure, A Prophet is a magnificent film (one of 2009's best), but it's a very different sort of crime movie than The Godfather and its greatness comes from a different place. Audiard is closer to the mark when he suggests his film is, "the anti-Scarface," as it echoes that film's tale of a young minority who rises to power in the world of organized crime but replaces operatic excess with harrowing realism.
Malik is a very curious figure to build a film around, as he's one of the most enigmatic cinematic leads I've seen in some time. He's onscreen in pretty much every scene, and we spend a good deal of time observing his actions and reactions. Even so, his face is so often a blank slate; we furrow our brows and wonder what's going on in there. It would seem based on the available evidence early in the film that he's a relatively innocent young man who's had to endure the horror of killing another man. Later in the film, it would seem he's becoming a monster capable of great evil. His expression barely changes from one section to the other; on the surface it's that same vacant look. He is indeed the opposite of Tony Montana; a blank slate of mystery rather than an explosive force of personality. Even so, Malik's dull personality does not make him a dull character, but rather an ideal bit of clay for Audiard to continuously re-mold throughout the proceedings. It's interesting to note that the scenes in which Malik seems easiest to read are those in which the ghost of his first victim appears; at least we know he's being haunted by something.
On the other, Cesar is a very expressive figure indeed. One can read so much from his eyes, which are menacing and sad at the same time. There's a near-Shakespearean level of tragedy accompanying him, as all his influence and might cannot remove the fact that he still feels like a caged animal at the end of the day. Cesar regards Malik with the same curiosity that the audience does; studying him as if hoping to learn something about why this young man has proven so capable. Even so, Cesar's racist views keep him from making progress in this area. When he can't figure something out, he waves his hand and dismissively assumes that it's just because Malik is another, "stupid Arab."
The film is sometimes brutally intimate, making the scenes of violence effectively cringe-inducing. The first killing in particular is a genuine piece of horror; a slow and bloody affair that sees the life slip away from Malik's victim one terrified gasp at a time. Crime movies tend to be particularly fond of giving their violent protagonists a "badass" persona; Audiard looks upon the actions of his characters with an unforgiving measure of reality (there is certainly cinematic artifice present in the film, but Audiard is careful in the way he employs it). The film has a lengthy running time (155 minutes) and a fairly large scope, but at its core it's a very intimate study of a young man's transformation.
Though A Prophet is first and foremost a crime movie (and sometimes a very stylish, Scorsese-influenced one, complete with flashy freeze-frames and a largely English-language soundtrack that includes a nerve-jangling version of "Mack the Knife"), Audiard does a remarkable job of subtly highlighting many of the social issues at the core of the film. His portrait of the French prison is so bleak that it caused many to assume the film was a harsh critique of the prison system in that country, even though the director insisted that the film is not, "a prison movie" or a statement about prisons. He also underlines a host of racial tensions between the characters, most poignantly in the case of Malik (who is hated by the Corsicans because he is an Arab, but hated by the Arabs because he spends all his time with the Corsicans).
The actors are stellar across the board, though Rahim and Arestrup pretty much carry the film in this department. Rahim's performance is not the sort of thing that will get an actor noticed, as he does little obvious "acting" or emoting and is content to simply provide a particular presence. It's quite effective, though it makes it difficult to determine what else he may or may not be capable of. Arestrup, on the other hand, has demonstrated his diverse skills on other occasions and gets the chance to do so yet again. He's a magnetic figure who instantly commands attention in any scene he appears in; we're certain that he's the man in charge well before we're actually told this is so. Arestrup's final scene in the film is a masterpiece of acting, as the actor speaks volumes without even saying a word.
The hi-def transfer is quite good, though the film certainly has a gritty, dirty palette. Though it features warmer colors than many prison films, A Prophet still attempts to maintain a sort of dingy naturalism throughout. Detail is superb, blacks are fairly deep and shading is excellent. There's a significant level of natural grain that adds to the filmic look of the movie, though I did notice a couple of instances where there was a bit much noise. The audio is strong as well, as the dialogue, sound design and music are mixed together quite nicely. Alexandre Desplat's insistent score gets a particularly strong mix, but the songs tend to be a bit hit-and-miss: one rap number is cranked up vastly louder than anything else in the entire film.
The supplemental package is quite different from the UK Blu-ray release of the film, replacing the 73-minute making-of documentary included on that release (along with a few shorter featurettes) with an audio commentary featuring Audiard, Rahim and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain. Other than that, you only get some deleted scenes, screen tests and rehearsal footage. Though I haven't seen the missing supplements, the new package seems disappointing in comparison.
There are moments when the mechanics of the plot become a bit labored, as Malik's dealings outside the prison can get overly complicated and muddled from time to time. Even so, these moments don't really harm the film's general momentum.
A Prophet is a tremendous crime movie that feels fresh despite the manner in which it draws from other films of this sort. The Blu-ray release is solid, making this release an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Screen Tests