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Left to Right: Malik (Tahar Rahim), Sampierro (Pierre Leccia). Photo taken by Roger Arpajou �� 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

4 out of 4 stars


A Prophet ( Un Prophète)

  • Directed by Jacques Audriard
  • Written by Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audriard
  • Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi
  • Classification: 18A

Mao famously described the Chinese peasant as being akin to a blank sheet of paper. "On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark," he declared, "the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted."

Malik el-Djebena is the blank sheet of paper in A Prophet, a sprawling prison-and-crime drama from director Jacques Audriard that stands a very good chance of taking the best foreign film Oscar this weekend.

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Yet Malik is hardly free of marks. At A Prophet's start, when Malik (superbly portrayed by Tahar Rahim) enters the French penitentiary to begin a six-year sentence for assaulting a police officer,we notice the gash on his right cheek, the cross-hatch of scars across his back.

Skinny, defensive, illiterate, Malik at 19 may be a prison novice but he's no stranger to institutions. Heretofore his life, we learn incrementally, cursorily, has been lived without parents or relatives or home, in one juvenile centre after another, where staying small, unformed and unnoticed has seemed the best survival strategy, even if the result has been almost utter self-effacement.

Unfortunately and fortunately, Malik does not escape the notice of César Luciani, the elderly, leonine Corsican criminal who, with the help of pliant guards and lawyers, pretty much runs the prison and thus decides who enjoys its perks and who will be kept in check, who will live and who will die.

César (played with magnificent menace by Niels Arestrup - part Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, part Marlon Brando's godfather) fastens on Malik like John Claggart on Billy Budd. When César gets word from the Corsican council outside the penitentiary that a new prisoner, a gay, hashish-dealing Arab (Hichem Yacoubi), must be killed, it's Malik, also an Arab, who's tapped for the job. Terrified, Malik at first resists, but César quickly and pointedly shows him the error of his ways: "If you don't kill him," he explains, "I'll kill you." Simple.

From this excruciating point on, A Prophet becomes a kind of Horatio Alger story in perverse. Under César's unforgiving tutelage and tenuous protection, Malik finds his blankness being filled with all sorts of characters, albeit mostly of the criminal variety.

Straddling the Corsican and Muslim factions in the prison - the Corsicans call him "an Arab dog," the Muslims "a pig" - he awakens to his own intelligence at the same time as he becomes a playa inside and outside the prison. Eventually, the prison comes to be a room pretty much like any other room in a dirty, rigged universe, a base of operations as permeable as the softest membrane. Yet Malik never (or at least rarely) lets himself get too bossy, cocky or noisy; after all, it is the exposed nail that gets the biggest hammer blow.

A Prophet runs 2½ hours. But despite its length - which Audriard nicely balances between gut-churning action and character study - the pacing is taut, the atmosphere unremittingly unsettled. Moreover, since exposition is kept to a minimum, the viewer has to stay alert throughout. This is especially true of the film's last hour when Malik is traversing a threatening plethora of ethnic criminal underworlds and the double-crosses are multiplying faster than calculations in a math tournament.

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Largely gritty and naturalistic in style, A Prophet is nonetheless leavened with lyrical, even surreal moments, the most prominent being a series of visitations to Malik by the ghost of the Arab he was forced to kill at the movie's start.

One caveat: At the risk of sounding sexist, let me say A Prophet is an unreservedly male film. Female characters are few and far between, and when they do appear, they pretty much fall into either one of two categories - les mamans ou les putains. In addition, its violence - particularly the initial very bloody and very awkward murder that defines A Prophet's trajectory and begins Malik's journey to self-definition - has none of the cartoonish "glamour" of, say, a Daniel Craig Bond film.

That said, A Prophet remains tremendously watchable cinema. Seeing it, you'll believe in the wisdom of both the jury that awarded the film a Grand Prix at last year's Cannes festival and the voters at last week's French version of the Academy Awards who gave it nine awards, including best picture, best director, best actor (Rahim) and best supporting actor (Arestrup) honours.

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