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A Prophet Review

February 25, 2010  |  7:30am
<em>A Prophet</em> Review

Release Date: Feb. 26
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
Cinematographer: Stéphane Fontaine
Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures Classics, 149 mins.

Crime epic builds on Godfather and Gomorra

A Prophet is the second significant modern crime film to come from Europe in the past two years. Italian director Matteo Garrone packed an ever-expanding plot into Gomorra and its dissection of Napoli’s Camorra crime family, and Cannes’ Grand Prix winner A Prophet keeps the felonies coming, focusing on prison drug syndicates in France.

Both films excel at taking a cold, documentarian look at their respective underground ringleaders without backhanded glamorization. And both pack a brass-knuckled punch. A Prophet sees its ascendant thug Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) painfully shove a folded razor into his mouth for an assassination assignment, a perfect marriage of adrenalized plot and assumed reality. Call it Noir Verite.

Unlike Gomorra, though, the most alluring aspects of A Prophet look beyond crime, just as Godfather scribe Mario Puzo said that his canonized epic was more a reflection on American immigration than a Tommy-gun demonstration. The story begins with Malik, a bewildered, illiterate 19-year-old tossed into a prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to an American university dorm. Charged with assaulting a police officer, the teenage offender is soon introduced to a prison yard built around racial battle lines.

France is certainly no stranger to ethno-religious strife, and this continual undercurrent gives the film much of its subliminal weight. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen ran for president with xenophobic hyperbole and finished second with 18 percent of the vote. Le Pen was later fined in 2005 by a Parisian Court for “inciting racial hatred,” and in 2007 Le Monde quoted him saying, “You can’t dispute the inequality of races.” That same year saw riots erupt in the Southern city of Perpignan, spurred by clashes between the Romas and North African Arabs.

Half Arab and half Corsican (from the French Mediterranean island populated by Catholics), Malik is left in a precarious position defined by this extreme sociological backdrop. Simultaneously maligned and embraced by his dual heritage, he uses his genealogy and bilingualism to maneuver around Arabs, Corsicans and Italians in the prison until each warring faction is either neutralized or in his debt. Herein lies the film’s ironic morality. Its “hero” manipulates racism as a tool to control the intolerant, uniting the color-blind and downtrodden into a triumphant force—to deal drugs. While there is no internal voiceover to explain Malik’s aspirations, it’s safe to assume that benevolence isn’t a goal, especially when he’s stifling the competition in a pile of sanguine bodies. The message is about as cynical an affirmation of brotherhood as can be, and this provocative ambiguity makes the question less about moral ideals than how morality can facilitate blind survivalism.

Rahim nails his character’s mercurial arc as a wallflower who evolves into a commandant. Likewise, Niels Arestrup provides a more realistic, imperfect rendition of Marlon Brando’s wizened capo archetype; as Malik’s boss, father figure and unspoken nemesis Cesar Luciani, Arestrup vacillates between forced calm and volcanic rage (the most memorable instance involving an eyeball and a spoon). Filled with resentment, the only constant in Arestrup’s captivity is the fear that he’ll lose control of his fleeting empire and, ultimately, his dignity. Such honed characterization fuels this two-and-a-half hour epic into a mesmerizing slow burn. And for those who revere the gospels of De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola, A Prophet delivers the right message.

Watch the trailer for A Prophet:

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