France’s ‘A Prophet’ offers a new kind of gangster: a Muslim

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It is unquestionably the most shocking scene in “A Prophet,” the baroque and urgent French gangster movie that was nominated for a foreign language film Oscar last week. Cringe-inducing and hyper-real, the action manages to encapsulate every abiding fear about prison life -- about desperate men in close quarters, mob rule and coerced sex -- into one blood-soaked sequence.

In the film, which hits theaters Feb. 26, Tahar Rahim portrays Malik, a teenage street hood of Arab descent sentenced to hard time for assaulting a cop. After being propositioned in the shower by another inmate named Reyeb -- who offers hard drugs in exchange for sexual favors -- Malik falls under the sway of Corsican Mafia strongmen. They order him to murder Reyeb (who’s a witness in a mob trial) or be killed for refusing.

Then comes the gruesome altercation, one hinging on Malik’s ability to make use of a razor blade that he has strategically concealed under his tongue. A struggle to the death with fountains of arterial spray ensues.

Throughout movie history, films from “Stalag 17” to “Stir Crazy” have capitalized on the prison milieu’s volatile Darwinism to motor the dramatic conflict of men backed into a corner. But “A Prophet” (“Un Prophète”) is hardly an exercise in gratuitous jailhouse violence.

Equal parts coming-of-age drama, criminal character study and sociological rumination, it details the creation of a new kind of mob don -- call him an equal opportunity equivalent to Michael Corleone for multicultural France. The movie has drawn comparisons to last year’s brooding Italian verite-style crime drama “Gomorrah” but is more frequently likened to “The Godfather” en route to scoring a Golden Globe nod, a European Film Award and the grand jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In addition to being what a British critic has called “the coolest movie to come out of Europe for many years,” the Sony Pictures Classics-distributed film takes a provocative political stance. It shattered a taboo of French film by heroically depicting the criminal exploits of a Muslim protagonist of Arab descent.

In an era when young people of color regularly loot and burn cars in Parisian suburbs as a form of political protest, and France continues to grapple with how the influx of African and North African immigrants will affect its national identity, the antihero character Malik (and Rahim’s star-making portrayal of him) arrives as a breakthrough. He certainly does not fit into French cinema’s boilerplate character types for French Arabs: the terrorist, the urban troublemaker or the earnest-yet-poor scholarship student.

And to hear it from writer-director Jacques Audiard (behind such award-winning films as “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “Read My Lips”), a kind of pop cultural social empowerment is what propelled the movie’s five-year path to the screen: the impulse to do for French Arabs what such films as “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather” trilogy have done for Italian Americans.

“The objective here from the very beginning was to make a genre film -- one that very democratically represents a group of people who are not typically represented,” Audiard said. “To represent them with roles within that genre. Like Cagney, Bogart, DeNiro.”

Unfolding chronologically, “A Prophet” begins with Malik El Djebena’s arrival in a Parisian prison -- illiterate and without a worldly possession to his name -- and concludes with his discharge, a changed man (although decidedly not because he has paid his debt to society). Along the way, the movie is by turns pulse-quickening and dense, shot-through with dreamlike sequences.

With his ability to speak Arabic and “pass” for something other than Muslim, Malik finds himself in a unique position. He must balance his allegiances to the inmate population’s two main factions: the Arabs’ Muslim gang and the Corsican Mafia, who not only run things behind bars but stage criminal operations -- assassinations, drug deals, kidnappings -- outside the jailhouse walls while prisoners are on work furloughs.

Malik starts out as a gopher for the pernicious kingpin played by Niels Arestrup and is eventually entrusted to run important “missions” for the mob. But as Malik’s responsibilities grow, so do his ambitions -- as well as his resentment at the Corsicans’ open disdain for him.

Underworld inspiration

Seated last month at a banquet table at the Beverly Hills home of the French consul-general, Audiard drew on his pipe and recalled the genesis of the movie. His inspiration came when he was screening his crime-thriller “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” for a prison film club.

“They were young people, about 90% Arabic and black, very poor,” he recalled. “You realize, there’s an underworld there, people that don’t have access to anything.” Which was about the time he received a script from Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit. The bare bones of how a small-time gangster became a big-time gangster were there -- as was the infamous razor blade scene -- but Audiard and his screenwriting partner Thomas Bidegain embarked on an extensive rewrite.

“Jail was just 30 pages and then Malik goes out,” Bidegain said. “We thought he should be in jail the whole time because we liked the irony of a guy who will go out and do crazy things. But he has to come back at 7:00 and bend over [to prove he is not concealing drugs or weapons for guards]. That will create a different kind of gangster!”

Most importantly, that “different kind of gangster” would be Arab. And unlike Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in “Scarface,” he would not be a sociopath or a bloodthirsty thug. Audiences would relate to him because Malik wasn’t a bad man, per se. More like a cipher.

“I wanted it to be the anti-’Scarface’ not because I don’t like Brian DePalma’s ‘Scarface’ -- I’ve seen it five times!” Audiard exclaimed. “But there’s not much to like about him, and you cannot relate to a character who is all bad.”

A boy transformed

Crucial to that vision was finding the right person to play Malik -- a role that requires a rangy intelligence and abiding naivete as well as a kind of unspoken slyness -- someone who must convincingly transform from boy to man over the movie’s course. After seeing more than 40 hopefuls, Audiard settled on Rahim, a little-known actor (best known for his appearance in a TV miniseries called “La Commune”) from the northeast of France born to working-class Algerian parents.

But Rahim rejects the go-to comparison that has been attached to his performance since “A Prophet” premiered in Cannes: with the young Al Pacino in the first “Godfather” film. “It is too much. People are using comparisons that are not possible,” said Rahim, 28. “This guy is a genius. He’s changed so much in cinema, and I’ve made just one movie.”

Rahim’s “A Prophet” turn has already landed him a Hollywood agent and a role in “The Eagle of the Ninth,” the upcoming period thriller. Rahim, who like his character emanated a kind of boyish studiousness, heaps credit on Audiard for helping him achieve certain personal breakthroughs on “A Prophet.” “I grew up on this film. Emotionally. Professionally. In every way,” he said.

Bidegain and Audiard’s governing fear during production was misrepresenting and running afoul of mosque-goers. But since the film’s release, the filmmakers say the community has given them nothing but positive feedback. And Audiard and Bidegain feel gratified to have put forward a new kind of movie hero at a time when France’s reluctance to embrace its multiculturality continues to convulse the country. If anything, Audiard and Bidegain said they hope “A Prophet” -- as well as its all but inevitable sequel -- will play some part in quelling the unrest that’s become inextricably associated with young people of African and Arab descent in France by giving those communities a different kind of role model.

“They are burning cars because that is the only representation of them,” Bidegain said.

“That’s the only way they have to be seen and heard,” Audiard said. “We wanted to give them a different voice.”