Billy Gray

The Look of Prophets

In Movie Reviews on March 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) enters A Prophet’s French prison looking like a wounded animal. We never really know why he’s been sentenced to six years in the pen—there’s a vague mention of assaulting a cop—but at 21, he’s not exactly a hardened criminal. He shyly cups his crotch during the welcoming strip search.

But if growing up poor, illiterate and apparently alone as a young Muslim on the fringes of French society didn’t coarsen his spirit, time spent “rehabilitating” behind bars will. But as cliché as it sounds, his jail time, like a delayed adolescence, forges his identity. It sets him free.

The prison guards hold Djebena captive under lock and key, but it’s Cesar Luciani (the riveting Niels Arestrup) who becomes his ball and chain. Cesar is the wizened ringleader of the joint’s Corsican inmates. And that mobster faction does constant battle with its Muslim cellmates (French natives are noticeably lacking).

Cesar takes Djebena under his criminal wing, mostly because the Arab youth can infiltrate the Corsicans’ rival sect. It’s a brutal baptism by fire for Djebena: kill a powerful Muslim prisoner, or be killed by Cesar’s goons.

Jacques Audiard’s almost queasily thrilling gangster movie wastes no time tying viewers’ stomachs in knots. The excruciating buildup to Djebena’s gory initiation is tough to watch. His target Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) hit on him in the showers (a blowjob in exchange for Reyeb’s hash), so El Djebena has to seduce him so as to get close enough with a razorblade. (Djebena overcomes his unease about fondling Reyeb’s balls by practicing on another Corsican.)

The visceral momentum of A Prophet rarely lets up. Audiard’s film is a compelling and immersive sensory experience for Djebena and for the audience.

Cesar teaches Djebena how to murder, smuggle drugs and double-cross. His jail classroom teacher, Ryad (Adel Bencherif), teaches him how to read and write, along with basic economics. As wholesome as they seem, the three R’s enable Djebena to overthrow Cesar.

He picks up Corsican without Cesar and his cronies knowing it, understands conversations he shouldn’t be hearing. Many of them reveal Djebena’s lowly outsider status in the eyes of the adoptive gang. That occasionally violent rejection, coupled with a taste for money (Cesar makes him a porter, which pays) and a familiarity with it courtesy of Ryad, leads to Cesar’s slow burning scheme to make his criminal teacher the student.

Much of A Prophet observes the awakening of Djebena’s brains and drive. But his five animal senses play an even more fundamental role. Cesar presses a spoon into his eye when he learns of his involvement in the drug trade. Gunfire during a stunningly shot assassination toward the movie’s end briefly robs his hearing. In one of the movie’s many beautiful small moments, Djebena eagerly hoards an extra bread bun from the stewardess during his first flight. (Another nice touch is the comically short tie he wears for the occasion.) And of course language is essential to Djebena’s ascent—or is it descent—within the underworld.

The viewer’s senses are also engaged, if not as threatened. Audiard seamlessly shifts the tone of A Prophet from unsparing violence to dreamy lyricism (his dream sequences—Djebena is repeatedly visited by the Reyeb’s ghost—have the disorienting power and strange charm of actual dreams). Director of photography Stephane Fontaine alters the visual texture to match the screenplay. He shoots the early prison scenes with a shaky handheld camera, the raw images soaked in a bleak blue-grey palate. Those naturalistic sequences rub up against but never clash with the abstract visuals and lighting of Djebena’s dreams and fantasies, which have an 8mm graininess.

Then there are moments when the frame is funneled through a sort of glaucoma tunnel. Does Djebena suffer from the condition? Does the choice convey the switch from documentary-style reality to the trippy looks inside his inner-mind? Or is it just a twist on the traditional dissolve? It doesn’t really matter, which is how you know it works.

Luckily, a killer soundtrack split between American rock, rap and (presumably French) electro-ambient riffs requires less analysis and more passive enjoyment.

Not to the say that A Prophet’s powerhouse narrative and style make its 2.5-hour running time a drag. The movie’s only fault is its slightly excessive length; the third act develops a slight limp as A Prophet becomes more of a standard issue gangster flick. But even then, moments big (that jolting murder scene inside a car parked in the middle of a busy Paris street) and small (Djebena reluctantly drops sand from a Marseille beach slip through his fingers as he returns to prison after a day’s leave) remind you this movie is about three cuts above.

Across-the-board brilliant acting perks you up the whole time as well. Rahim goes from nervous, jumpy kid to assured, ambitious mastermind without losing his tender likeability. He leaves jail a more ruthless criminal than when he entered, but he’s somehow sweet enough for us to root for him.

Arestrup is a knockout, a calculating professor type whose eerie calm is scarier than the bouts of rage (watching those icy blues light on fire is a sight to behold) that rarely disrupt it. As the ghost Yacoubi’s provides humor and wistfulness (and as the living Reyeb a shocking eruption of blood). And Bencherif has such a presence that his recidivism really dismays.

Djebena completes his term and leaves jail with a fleet of Arab escorts. But as important as cultural and religious identity is to A Prophet and its protagonist, the biggest thing I took away from the movie is that Djebena would be fine on his own.

  1. Great discussion, you really hit on what makes the film so great, and so convincing.

    I’ve just reviewed the thing on my blog, as it happens. I wanted to rate it higher, but the confusing plot prevented me from doing so. Particularly in the last act I found the narrative too intricate and complex. So much so, that by the end I couldn’t explain what was going on at all. I’ve outlined the four biggest confusions in my review, take a look and see if you can clarify them, because I’d love to understand the momentum which leads to the satisfying conclusion.

    But again, great summary. Spot on.

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