A Prophet, directed by Jaques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), is the French Godfather. It’s a criminal saga of the scope, dark elegance, and timeless gravitas of Coppola’s masterpieces, with a keen awareness of contemporary European socio-cultural tensions that makes it particularly timely and, perhaps, prophetic.
One of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best foreign film, A Prophet also won the 2009 Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and swept the Cesar Awards (the French Oscars). Set mostly in a prison, the film follows the gradual corruption of Malik (Tahar Rahim), a young Frenchman of Arab descent who during a 6 year prison stay transforms from a relatively good-natured kid to a hardened criminal kingpen. During his time in prison, Malik comes under the tutelage/rule of Cesar (Niels Arestrup), the Don Corleone boss of a Corsican gang who runs the prison from the inside out and all but forces young Malik to join his gang to “be protected.”
Early in the film, Cesar puts Malik in an impossible situation. He wants Malik to kill another prisoner (Hichem Yacoubi) who must be silenced before he can testify. If Malik doesn’t successfully undertake this hit, Cesar will have Malik killed. So it’s killed or be killed. And it’s Malik’s first step down a very dark path.
The scene of Malik performing his initiating assassination is one of the most brutal scenes of violence I’ve seen in a long time–involving a razor blade, a long, clumsy, bloody physical struggle and a viciously slit throat. The scene, which is thankfully the most violent of the film, underscores the significance of that moment–both for Malik and for anyone who takes that step of killing another person, intentionally and nervously. It reminded me of the scene in Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov actually commits the murder of the pawnbroker, or the scene in Woody Allen’s Match Point when Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character kills his secret lover. In both cases, there are irrevocable consequences resulting from the choice to murder.
A Prophet is no different. After Malik commits the murder, his life begins a downward spiral as he learns the ropes of the criminal underworld. Initially driven by the necessity to survive but eventually by the thrill and hubris of becoming a mob boss who people fear and respect, Malik’s story is utterly tragic but ultimately cautionary.
How are dangerous, reckless criminals made? This movie tackles that subject directly. But perhaps more provocatively it also attempts to understand the ethnic and cultural shifts going on in France (from white to non-white, European to Middle-Eastern, etc) and how it all plays out in the criminal world.
A Prophet doesn’t really prove the power of its name until the final act–and some stunning final shots–but I’ll leave it to you to make of the finale what you will. But suffice it to say, this is a film I highly recommend, and one that will have long staying power as one of the greats of contemporary French cinema.