Review: "A Prophet (Un Prophète)"

During this past awards season, and especially since last year's Cannes Film Festival, there has seemed to be a match-up between Jacques Audiard's Grand Prix winning A Prophet (Un Prophète) and Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or winning The White Ribbon, as the two films raked in most of the year's Best Foreign Language Film awards. Many people seemed to fall into one camp or the other, those that supported A Prophet, and those who supported The White Ribbon.

I know which camp I fall into, as a strong supporter of Haneke's brilliant Ribbon. However, the comparison is ultimately an unfair one, because you would be hard pressed to find two more disparate films than these. The White Ribbon is a dark, formalist allegory, whereas A Prophet is a much more modern prison drama. Pitting the two against each other does neither any favors, and is a false comparison to begin with. They were thrown together by circumstance not by any actual similarity. It is possible to actually like and appreciate both on their own merits.

Left to Right: Niels Arestrup as Cesar and Tahar Rahim as Malik
Photo taken by Roger Arpajou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

What is immediately evident is Audiard's storytelling prowess, as he draws us in early on into the frighteningly real prison world he creates. It is into this hard-knock world that 19 year old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) enters for a five year term. Arabic, but not Muslim, Malik really doesn't fit in anywhere, until one day he is approached by members of the Corsican mob, led by César (Niels Arestrup), to kill a snitch being housed in the prison before a high profile trial against one of their own. If he succeeds, he will have protection. If he fails, he will have made some powerful enemies. Soon enough, Malik finds himself under the wing of César, but always as a second class citizen, an "other" because of his Arab background. But Malik is street smart enough to use this to his advantage, gaining the trust the Muslims in the prison while starting his own drug operation outside the prison walls.

Before long, Malik has worked his way up through the ranks of multiple organizations, but never ceases to be haunted by his past, represented by the ever present spirit of his first kill, who refuses to let him forget.

Left to Right: Hichem Yacoubi as Reyeb, Tahar Rahim as Malik
Photo taken by Roger Arpajou © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

And that is precisely where A Prophet falters. It is not a literal haunting, of course. But Audiard's vision of Malik is that of a different and new kind of person, something special. This quality is manifested in a mysterious dream that seems to foretell the future, and allows Malik to warn of disaster. It is an instance that is never brought up again, and seems strangely out of place with its surrounded. Did Malik actually see the future? Was it just a coincidence? We never find out, and the story angle is never elaborated on or revisited, which is strange considering that it is the basis for the film's title. If Audiard intended to suggest some kind of extrasensory or even supernatural about Malik, why not go for it full force, rather than leave it to such a random, inconsequential occurrence? It just seems out of place and unnecessary to the rest of the story, and feels like the kind of thing that should have been either explored more deeply, or scrapped altogether.

There's no denying, however, that Tahar Rahim is something special. He holds the film as Malik, and even when the film runs long, his presence remains magnetic. Ignoring the "prophet" angle, A Prophet is a taut, solidly crafted drama. Audiard's world is both fully realized and compelling, even if its consideration of Malik as some sort of modern day prophet seems halfhearted and ultimately beside the point. It is his street smarts that get him where he is, not some sort of extra sensory perception, and as a tough, gritty prison drama, A Prophet works just fine. There's just not as much to work with here as it feels like there should be.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A PROPHET (UN PROPHÈTE); Directed by Jacques Audiard; Stars Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi; Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material. In French w/English subtitles. Opens today, 2.26, in limited release.


Satya said…
Though Haneke won the Palm D'or I personally preferred Un Prophète. I liked the way the film progressed with a somewhat growing up of Malik. Though Das weisse Band had more layers to it, as a whole Un Prophète was better.

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