Genre is powerful, especially in the hands of as gifted a filmmaker as France’s Jacques Audiard. His new film, the masterful “A Prophet,” is an answered prayer for those who believe that revitalizing classic forms with contemporary attitudes makes for the most compelling kind of cinema.
Part prison film, part crime story, part intense personal drama, this all-consuming narrative with the power and drive of a Formula One racer has been something of a phenomenon since it took the grand jury prize at Cannes last year. A “Sight & Sound” poll of 60 critics worldwide named it the best film of 2009, it’s one of the five foreign-language film Oscar nominees, it took Britain’s prestigious BAFTA award in that category and, with 13 nominations overall, it’s a prohibitive favorite to win the Cesar, France’s Oscar, for best picture.
None of this will be a surprise to followers of co-writer (with Thomas Bidegain) and director Audiard, a meticulous craftsman whose four previous films, including U.S. art-house successes “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” display a passion for well-constructed, emotionally connected narratives and gripping, visceral storytelling that “A Prophet” takes to even more impressive levels.
Though anyone who’s watched a “Big House” prison movie or a story of criminal enterprise featuring gang rivalries, intricate drug deals and double and triple crosses will feel at home here, that’s not the end of the story.
It’s especially gratifying to see how the full arsenal of modern filmmaking -- uncompromisingly gritty characterization, moments of quite graphic violence and sex, unlooked-for surreal elements like ghosts catching fire and eclectic music from the likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Sigur Rós -- significantly up the ante on otherwise familiar proceedings.
As a filmmaker, Audiard not only believes in this style of storytelling in and of itself, he values it for what it can clandestinely say about larger issues. “What interests me about genre,” he said in an interview at Cannes, “is that the public connects immediately with it. I like that it’s a popular form of cinema with mass appeal. Art cinema aspects and elements can be inserted and reach the widest audience.”
What Audiard especially wanted to insert in “A Prophet” is the unexpectedly empathetic character of its protagonist, a rootless young Arab named Malik El Djebena, someone casually in and out of trouble, who at age 19 arrives at a French prison to begin doing a six-year stretch. “You’re in with the big guys,” his lawyer laconically tells him, and so it frighteningly proves to be.
Friendless, barely literate and highly vulnerable in the savage, Balkanized prison environment, Malik gains our sympathy immediately because of the nature of Tahar Rahim’s performance. Audiard, who met the young actor when they shared an automobile ride from a film set, says he cast him because “when I looked into his eyes there was no melancholy, no tragedy, just someone very open, very full of life,” and that quality comes through immediately.
Unfortunately, Malik catches a terrible break early on. Not only does an older Arab prisoner named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) proposition him for sexual favors, but Cesar Luciani, the frankly terrifying crime boss who runs things on the inside, notices this and decides to use it to his advantage.
If Malik is at the bottom of the prison pyramid, Cesar is at the very top, a Mr. Big who isn’t exaggerating when he says of himself and his wolfpack cadre of Corsican mobsters, “We own this place.” As played by Niels Arestrup (who won a Cesar as the cold father in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”), this is a brutally violent, terrifying man with the dead eyes and quick-strike instincts of a cobra, someone who intimidates hard cases just by looking at them.
The story of “A Prophet” is the tale of what happens to Malik during his six years inside as he navigates the equivalent of a post-graduate course in criminal behavior.
The film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour length features a ton of plot, vivid incidents best experienced without knowing what you’re getting into, but a word should be said about the film’s use of explosive violence, which is doled out in brief bursts that are always terrible and unsettling.
It isn’t giving anything away to say that the story of what happens to Malik is intricately intertwined with his relationship with Cesar, a deadly career criminal who functions as both mentor and slave master to the young man, taking him under his wing but holding him at contemptuous arm’s length because he is an Arab. The film deftly echoes “The Godfather” saga, but played out in an alternate universe where Don Vito Corleone matches wits with his own son Michael.
Though “A Prophet” was shot in a set constructed in an abandoned factory, it goes to great lengths to feel authentic, including hiring former convicts, “the only people,” the director says, “who know about prisons.” Seeing the film a second time, it was jolting to be reminded that Stéphane Fontaine’s intense camera work is in color, so bleak and claustrophobic is this self-contained unit where even a glimpse of the light of the outside world comes as a shock.
Audiard’s film, much to his surprise, sparked debate in France about conditions in prison and penal reform. His goals, he said in Cannes, were more cinematic, his intention was to create mythic figures, icons for those who don’t have them.
But because his characters are so individual and alive, Audiard’s film transcends those goals, catching us up completely in Malik’s very human quest to come into his own. We not only worry about this young man’s survival, we worry about what the act of surviving will do to him.
To borrow a marketing phrase from another, very different film, “A Prophet” really is the movie that reminds you why you love the movies. Especially movies like this one.