Sunday, 14 February 2010
FILM REVIEW: A PROPHET
Sony Pictures Classic
I have an aversion to films that proceed beyond the 120 minute mark, so I'm equally as surprised as you to admit that Jacques Audiard's A Prophet managed to keep me enthralled despite its 150 minute running time. Not that it couldn't have done with some editing but this prison drama, charting the simultaneous education and rise of a young man during a six year prison term, does so much right that one can forgive the longueurs.
Imprisoned for beating a policeman, Malik (Tahar Rahim), 19 years old and barely literate, is stuck in a no man's land. Not willing to align himself with his fellow Arab inmates, he is also considered an enemy of the Corsican (mafioso) gang who, with the guards on their payroll, virtually run the prison. But the Corsican leader Cesar (Niels Arestrup) needs an inmate 'taken care of' and if Malik agrees to do it, he will be afforded protection for the rest of his stay.
The moments leading up to Malik's mission - to kill an Arab who is a key witness in a trial against a Corsican - are some of the most suspenseful I've experienced in a cinema since No Country For Old Men. The aftermath of his deed literally haunts Malik; the ghost of his victim making regular appearances and acting somewhat as his conscience.
As Malik firms in Cesar's confidence, he begins working both ends to the middle and setting himself up for life on the outside. He learns to read and also makes valuable contacts with both Corsican and Arab gangs when he receives day release, running errands for Cesar but also solidifying his own interests. One of these day trips involves a hit which must rank as one of the best shoot 'em ups in recent years.
And here you could accuse Audiard of falling into the trap that so many makers of gangster films often do, that of glorifying their subject matter. But while there is some element of romanticising his protagonist – the film's finale certainly doesn't subscribe to the adage that crime doesn't pay – it's the prison sequences making up the majority of the film where A Prophet's real power lies. Life's no picnic behind bars and everyone has their place. The film doesn't skimp on the hardships, violence and boredom of prison life, nor the sacrifices one makes in order to survive.
A Prophet also exalts the virtues of education without being preachy or trite about it. Malik's education is both literal and figurative; his talent is not one of prophecy but of reading the play and planning three moves ahead. Going to prison is the making of Malik: it's a tough way to learn but a hell of a journey to watch.