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Movie Review: A Prophet

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 23, 2010 at 4:06 a.m.

— Unsentimental and amoral, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is a French gangster/prison thriller that nearly lives up to the flattery - critics have compared it to The Godfather and GoodFellas - it has received since it premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. In its home country, it was also nominated for a record-tying 13 Cesar Awards, of which it won nine, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. (Considered a co-favorite - with Michael Hanke’s The White Ribbon - to win the best foreign film Oscar, it was upset by Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes.)

Yet while Audiard’s aspiration and talent are evident, and the performances of Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup are riveting, a more sober evaluation might be that the movie marries the gleefully violent excesses of Brian De Palma’s Scarface with the deliberative, faux journalistic methodologyJean-Pierre Melville employed in crime films such as Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966), Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). In other words, while the movie is pretty good, it has its slow bits and at times it veers toward sensationalistic - if deadpan - bloodletting.

What’s most troubling about the film is the assumption that we ought to invest in the title character’s - a youngArab named Malik El Djebena (Rahim) - unrepentant ambition. He’s presented as a cipher, fresh meat in the yard, an illiterate young convict ignorant of the codes and inherent dangers of prison. For the film’s first 30 minutes or so, Malik is subjected to increasingly abject humiliations.

Then he is forced, by the Corsican gang that controls the prison, to befriend and betray a fellow Arab. Malik does what he’s told and so comes under the protection of the Corsicans, who treat him as a slave.

But as the years go by, Malik’s native intelligencewins him the confidence of the Corsican leader, Cesar Luciano (Arestrup), who arranges for his protege to receive 12-hour passes to see to the mob’s business outside the prison walls. Malik watches and learns, a student waiting for the day he might become the master.

While Audiard - the son of noted director Michel Audiard - has the sort of command of visual and sonic textures and details that suggests a prodigious talent, A Prophet lacks the inventiveness of Audiard’s previous films The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005), a remake of James Toback’s Fingers, and especially his superb Read My Lips (2001). While the film generally succeeds as entertainment, there is a heavy-handed predictability to Malik’s arc and a few tone-deaf comic scenes with the ghost of a betrayed convict that should have been cut.(Which would have helped with the movie’s sloggy, 155-minute running time.)

And the title doesn’t really work either, though there’s a short scene that seems designed to justify it.

However, these points are all quibbles, and if the determined grittiness of Audiard’s vision seems forced, he’s quite good at deconstructing the power dynamics at work in prison and in the wider world. Malik’s childish innocence is never completely subsumed by the corrupting criminality, and Arestrup’s Cesar Luciano is perhaps the most compelling crime boss since, well, yes, Brando’s Don Corleone.

Despite the hoopla, A Prophet is not great cinema - it’s not better, say, than Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008) or Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) - but it’s a pretty good movie. Almost as good as advertised.

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 04/23/2010

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