When it comes to hard-bitten crime cinema, Jacques Audiard has few equals in Europe, and his violent, gripping prison drama A Prophet shows him extending his range with unimpeachable command. The story of a gauche young inmate who rises through the criminal ranks to become a formidable player, A Prophet works both as hard-edged, painstaking detailed social realism and as a compelling genre entertainment.
The only thing that might hamper commercial prospects is a labyrinthine, sometimes perplexing narrative, but otherwise the film to be released in France in August - should have the same international appeal as last years Cannes crime hit Gomorrah. Its unapologetically testosterone-laden tenor will give the film a resonance way beyond the international art-house constituency that embraced Audiards last film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Expect this stimulating film also to be much discussed in the French media in terms of its topical backgrounds, the national prison system and Frances Islamic population.
Set largely within prison walls and featuring an almost exclusively male and non-professional cast, the film details the prison career of Malik el Djebena (newcomer Rahim), a 19-year-old man of North African origin but estranged from the Muslim community. Sentenced to six years on an unspecified charge, Malik is chosen by Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), feared kingpin of the prisons reigning Corsican gang, to kill a prisoner named Reyeb (Yacoubi) who initially offers Malik drugs in exchange for sex. Malik commits the bloody murder, and thanks to Lucianis near-total control of the prisons internal workings - gets off scot-free. This makes him a lieutenant in the prisons Corsican gang, initially entrusted only with menial duties and disparaged as an Arab outsider.
Haunted by visions of a ghostly Reyeb, and determined to get on, the illiterate Malik not only learns to read, but teaches himself Corsican, surreptitiously learning the ins and outs of Lucianis business. Another inmate, Ryad (Bencherif), becomes Maliks friend, later his ally on the outside. When Luciani arranges periods of leave for Malik, entrusting him with various criminal missions, Malik takes the opportunity to do some business of his own, setting up a drugs trade with Ryads aid. Life gets increasingly dangerous for Malik, both inside and outside prison walls, but he seems partly through Reyebs benign, unearthly influence - to lead a charmed life. Powers of prophecy are attributed to him after surviving a bizarre car crash an incident presaged in an enigmatic fantasy sequence.
Immensely detailed both in its accounts of prison life and of the politics of organized crime, A Prophet comes across as both a realistic film and a deeply cynical one: it is extremely matter-of-fact in depicting a dog-eat-dog world. [D-Man2010]