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Case Number 19408

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A Prophet

Sony // 2009 // 155 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // August 3rd, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Paul Pritchard believes soap on a rope is a prisoner's best friend.

Editor's Note

Our review of A Prophet (Blu-Ray), published July 26th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

"If you don't kill him, I kill you."

Opening Statement

Believe the hype.

Facts of the Case

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a young French-Arab, is sentenced to six years in prison for assaulting a police officer. Barely able to read or write, and ostracized for being of mixed race, Mailk finds himself totally alone.

Mob boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) rules the prison with his Corsican gang. When an inmate of North African origin, who is due to testify against one of Cesar's associates, is transferred to the prison, Cesar strong-arms Malik into murdering the man, using Malik's shared heritage with the soon to be victim to allow him to get close.

Frightened, Malik reaches out for help from the prison authorities, but quickly learns how far reaching Cesar's influence goes within the walls of the prison, with not just prison guards, but also the warden on Cesar's payroll. Resigned to his fate, Malik completes the job, and finds himself working for Cesar. Initially, Cesar has Malik perform menial tasks for him; but when Cesar is able to arrange a day's leave from prison for Malik, he is able task him with far more important work. And so it goes that, on each of Malik's leave days, Cesar hands him a mission to complete, be it to liaise with associates, or perform a hit.

But through his friendship with a former prisoner, Ryad, Malik is able to start his own drug trafficking business on the outside. On each day's leave he has, Malik is able to further himself a little more, often using Cesar's own business contacts, until he finds himself in a position to finally overturn his old boss.

The Evidence

Everything you've heard is true: A Prophet is the real deal, and all the awards and excellent word of mouth it has picked up since debuting at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival is justified.

Though the story told throughout A Prophet is a well-worn one, the character of Malik is so fascinating that it feels fresh and, with the added benefit of the racial element, totally relevant. When we first meet Malik he is an ignorant youth; a loner with no concept of the ways of the world, which allows the tougher, more world-weary Cesar to manipulate him with minimal effort. And yet, unbeknownst to Cesar, that first act of violence he coerces Malik into opens the younger mans eyes. Having entered the prison an illiterate, Malik sets about taking classes to learn to read, and, as his thirst for education grows, so too does his yearning for betterment, of both his understanding of the world and his standing in it.

Through his dealings with Cesar, Malik is seen as a traitor by his fellow inmates of Arab descent, while he is always on the outskirts of Cesar's gang due to his race. However Malik, being smarter than either side would credit him, is happy to get into bed with whoever can help him further his own burgeoning empire. By listening and observing from the shadows, Malik gains an understanding of how life behind bars works, and is quick to apply this to the outside world during his day leave. All this is done under Cesar's nose with a cunning it is suggested the older man may once have used to get his foot on the ladder, which makes the final moment shared between Malik and Cesar so much more powerful.

For all of Malik's shrewdness, and infrequent but brutal acts of violence, it would easy to confuse Malik as being nothing more than a thug, albeit one with the guile and tenacity to rise to the top of the crime ladder. But to do so would be to ignore Malik's obvious vulnerabilities, and the gentleness shown predominantly during scenes shared with Ryad (Adel Bencherif) and his family. Indeed, it's very easy to see Malik as the victim of the piece, rather than the cold-blooded killer a lesser actor and director may have shaped. Although Malik's acts of murder are in no way acceptable, he never harms innocents, and, again without excusing the beatings he dishes out, is clearly a product of his society. It's this moral complexity that sees A Prophet really get under the skin, and asks viewers whether Malik, or the prison system he is placed in, are responsible for the stripping of his humanity. Just as pressingly, the film's final shot hints at a rebirth of Malik's compassion, albeit one that is shadowed by his continued standing in he criminal underworld.

Writer/Director Jacques Audiard takes a bold decision by showing Malik frequently converse with the ghost of his first victim, Reyeb. Under a less assured directorial hand this may have come across as being too arty, and lacking in substance. Thankfully Audiard sidesteps this potential pitfall by using these scenes to let us better understand Malik's feelings on the events he has been through, which is especially important considering that Reyeb had been the first person to show any kindness toward Malik. Audiard also shows himself equally adept when it comes to shooting action sequences. Malik's final job is a blood soaked gunfight in the cramped confines of a car. From the slow, tension fueled build up, to the sudden explosiveness of the shootout itself, the entire sequence is a masterclass in action cinema.

Working with co-writer Thomas Bidegain, Audiard offers up a mirror on the world as it is today. All life can be found within the walls of the prison that incarcerates Malik and Cesar. Particularly poignant, considering world events over the past decade, is how the film handles multiculturalism. As the years pass by, Cesar notes (often with hardly masked disgust) the increasing numbers of Muslim inmates; as their numbers swell, so too do racial tensions. Audiard offers no answer to the problem he presents, nor does he take sides. But his handling of the subject is such that it lingers with the viewer long after the final credits roll. This is grown up filmmaking, and not something that can be easily dismissed.

Kudos must also go out to the cast. Everyone, from the leads to the support players, is excellent. Tahar Rahim, as Malik, offers a startling performance. Rahim, as already mentioned, really does instill a sense of vulnerability into the role, whilst ensuring the character's growth feels natural. Adel Bencherif, as Malik's closet ally, Ryad, cuts a tragic figure; while Niels Arestrup, as Cesar, gives a riveting reading of the character. Arestrup infuses Cesar with a composure that, when pushed, gives way to a frightening rage. His final scene, which sees Cesar at his lowest ebb, is particularly memorable, as both he and Malik see the total reversal of their roles completed.

Capturing perfectly the cold sterile visuals of A Prophet, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. Sharp, and retaining excellent levels of detail, the DVD release of A Prophet offers a flawless presentation of the film. The soundtrack is similarly impressive. Though the film is low on sonic theatrics, individual sounds, particularly during the prison scenes, are excellent and contrast sharply with the more serene sounds captured during Malik's day release.

The commentary track brings together the director with his co-writer Thomas Bidegain and lead actor Tahar Rahim. Though very much a matter of fact experience, with no room for backslapping or jokes, the track offers an excellent insight into the dedication that went into making the film. Deleted scenes and rehearsal footage round out the extras, and contribute to a lean, but high quality set.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

A Prophet pulls no punches, and contains scenes of extreme violence. Malik's first kill (the murder of Reyeb) is a clumsy, messy affair, and even though I'm somewhat desensitized to screen violence, I found myself struck by its brutality. This is not really a negative I'll admit, but more of a warning to potential viewers not prepared for some of the more extreme elements of A Prophet. As stated earlier in the review, this is grown up filmmaking, it requires concentration and effort from the viewer, and those looking for non-stop thrills should look elsewhere.

Closing Statement

A Prophet maintains a vice-like grip on the viewer throughout, and, like all the best films, sticks with you for days afterwards; repeat viewings are a certainty.

Audiard has crafted a modern classic, capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with the greats of the genre. Whether world cinema is your thing or not, A Prophet comes with the highest recommendation possible.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• Portuguese
• Spanish
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Crime
• Foreign
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Rehearsal Footage
• Screen Tests
• Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Website

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