A number of film critics and a good portion of the film-going public in France hold Jacques Audiard to be the country’s foremost director. Previous works such as “A Self-Made Hero” (1996) and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” (2005) helped create this reputation.
The absolutely stunning “A Prophet” confirms it. The film, which received the Grand Prix at the last Cannes Festival, tells the story of Malik el Djebena, a nineteen-year old second- generation Arab in prison with a six-year sentence for an unspecified crime. Malik makes himself indispensable to the Corsican capo, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), after having passed with flying colors his first test–killing inside the prison a witness for the prosecution at an upcoming trial.
A quick study, the young man keenly observes the way the game is played around him and starts putting his own pawns in place. He uses his occasional day out for drug deals, for eliminating the competition and generally establishing a strong position for himself so that when he finally completes his sentence and gets out, he’s already a major and respected crime figure who will presumably go on to even greater authority.
The film is indeed stunning, quite extraordinary in the way it shows prison life as it has never been shown before. The all-around deals and arrangements–not least with prison officials—the ongoing trade of everything tradable, the corruption, the award and retribution system, are remarkably detailed and well-served by the superb, relentless, in-your-face cinematography that captures the agitation and vicious violence of prison life but also moments of respite and some briefly elegiac ones.
The score by Alexandre Desplat deserves another high mark not only for accompanying the action but for being such a tightly integrated part of it that it underlines the story without any kind of intrusion. Only occasionally, becoming aware of the soaring accompaniment, does one realize how magnificent the score actually is. And of course the acting. The camera never leaves Tahar Rahim for a moment.
This unknown actor without whom there would be no film is simply perfect in every expression, every nuance that passes on this mobile, young yet battered face as swiftly as summer clouds pushed across the sky by strong winds. Everything is there. You have to pay attention to the batting of lids, to a slight frown, to the shadow of a smile, to the beginning of fear or worry to understand the subtlety and strength of this remarkable performance. It might not be an exaggeration to say that Jacques Audiard, son of legendary screenwriter and director Michel Audiard, has not only surpassed his father but everyone else in the process. “A Prophet,” clocking in at slightly less than two and a half hours, never sags and is thrilling from the first moment to the last. It is cinema at its absolute best.
You can find this, as well other movies, in the writer’s One Hundred Years of Movies eBook, available here: