With the honor of being chosen as France’s Foreign language film Oscar contender to add to its Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix, A Prophet has been rightly lauded by critics. Whether audiences have the stomach for 150 minutes behind bars remains debatable, but there is no denying the persuasive power of a film that takes no prisoners and pulls no punches.
It could have just been another sinewy prison drama, detailing the deprivations and eruptions of violence of life on the inside. It says much for the ability of director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Self-Made Hero) that he manages to create an emotional intensity that lifts the commonplace on to a higher plain.
Earlier in the year at the Cannes Film Festival it was the one title that drew universal admiration from the critics and about which there was real buzz. Now it has been selected as France’s foreign language Oscar contender, which will do no harm to its box office chances. It probably needs all the help it can muster to break through the barrier of its 150 minutes running time and the no-name cast, most of whom respond magnificently to the challenges.
First-time actor Tahar Rahim gives a tour de force performance as Malik El Djebena, a wayward Arab youth who lands in prison at the age of 19. He is unable to read or write and is a relative innocent abroad. He is at the mercy and prey of the less scrupulous inmates and remains oblivious to the inherent dangers of his predicament. Audiard depicts with no holds barred the violence, assorted humiliations and constant struggle for survival that run through this dark and lawless world.
The youngster quickly learns the game of survival. A gang of Corsicans who have control of the prison force Malik, under threat of death, to befriend and kill a fellow Arab. He accomplishes the mission and then becomes associated with the Corsicans. Despite misgivings, he agrees to do other “work” for them as a means of receiving their protection.
Malik, however, is quick to learn. He educates himself, develops an instinctive cunning and becomes adept at playing one group against the other in a radical confrontation of the prison's power structure. Years down the line he is revealed to have started his own mini-empire.
Audiard examines thoroughly the detail and atmosphere of prison life, the power struggles, the despair and the minutiae of the daily grind. The narrative is equally compelling and powerful.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Niels Arestrup, Tahar Rahim, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb and Jean-Philippe Ricci
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Producer: Martine Cassinelli
Genre: Prison drama
Rating: R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.
Running time: 150 min.
A Prophet / Un prophète February 26 NY/LA