A Prophet is a French prison/mob film that sucks you in from the first scene. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture, I guarantee this movie will inspire you to recommend it to others a) because it's that good and b) because... it's just that good.
Prophet is the story of the transformation of an impoverished young Frenchman of Arab descent, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), and his Machiavellian rise to power within the prison system. Learning the ropes as he goes, Malik is a quick study. From the Muslim gangs to the Corsican mob led by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), he constantly absorbs knowledge.
Malik starts out nervous, illiterate and inarticulate, but smart enough to take in everything around him. Serving as underling to the Corsican gang, he also studies language and economics. Malik learns to smuggle drugs and to survive. For guaranteed protection he must also prove himself by murdering someone. This leads to an intense razor-blade-in-the-mouth scene with one of the hugest torrents of blood spurting in film history. His ongoing relationship with this "first kill" as a visiting phantom guides him, inspiring his visionary insight and the movie's title. As he toughens up and achieves more of his goals, the end result is nothing we expect. But the intensity and the intellect of this film goes way beyond any stereotypical "behind bars" trappings.
Dubbed as the "French Scorsese," director Jacques Audiard has said Prophet is the "anti-Scarface" and its non-stereotypical take on racial behaviors provides the feel of an anthropological documentary. A combination of influential movies comes to mind like, Midnight Express, Brubaker, Papillon, 1983's Bad Boys (with Sean Penn), even Shawshank Redemption, but Prophet mostly resembles Andrew Dominik's Chopper mixed with the gritty realism of Fernando Meirelles' City of God.
The acting obtains absolute perfection. Arestrup commands the screen with true mob boss spirit, passive and friendly one minute, exploding into fits of cruel rage the next. His transformation from top dog to a thug whose days are numbered is devastating. Rahim is an actor who at first glance doesn't seem all that special, but his portrayal of a gifted learner who can hide his thoughts, calculate his moves, and take courageous risks to get ahead proves nothing short of mesmerizing. Rahim's performance is strong, but not grandiose. You want to root for Malik, but his power playing keeps him mutating back and forth between loyalties so much that you're forced to examine your convicitions.
With plot intricacies that nearly rival Godfather II and The Sopranos, Prophet's genius lies in the idea that nothing is what it seems - even when it's right in front of you. As such, A Prophet derives as much narrative horsepower from surreal dream scenes as its does hard-hitting realism. But what differentiates and elevates this film is Audiard's careful deconstruction of socio-political power dynamics. This is Machiavelli's The Prince played out in prison; Malik never lies yet deftly gains power against others by using truth as his deceit.
From the distant echoing yells of faraway cells to the compelling theme music that includes carefully selected blues and Jimmy Dale Gilmore's Mack the Knife in the end credits, Audiard shows extreme attention to detail. The height of the drama includes an extremely original, dazzling yet claustrophobic shoot out scene that can only be described as a blood-spattered rebirth.
A Prophet is an epic drama examining the intersection of success and survival at the purest level with an almost spiritual transcendence. At two and a half hours, it was just getting started.
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif. Rated R.