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Arrested Devolvement

A Prophet (2009)

Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics

This movie could have been called "An Education." Nineteen-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives in an adult prison in France for a five-year stretch with only a hidden 50-franc note that’s immediately confiscated. He has no friends or family on the outside to send him money, and knows no one inside either. Immediately this isolation brings him to the attention of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the godfather among the prisoners — who requires a favor. And if Malik doesn’t oblige, he will be killed.

"A Prophet" follows Malik and the ramifications of this favor throughout his prison career, as he works toward leaving his incarceration a very different man from the frightened teenager who came in. The prison is very obviously not realistic — just as dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs, they can also sniff out mobile phones, for one example — but the liberties taken are understandable dramatic license. Because what director Jacques Audiard has done is throw down the gauntlet for a revolution.

It’s difficult to imagine that this movie has been made in the same year as "Micmacs." Abdel Raouf Dafri, who co-wrote the original screenplay, has said that the film was written specifically to demonstrate Muslims in France being able to solve their problems. Shockingly, this is one of the first French movies to make a Muslim character a hero. His navigation of the complicated prison factions — organized Corsican gangsters, less organized Muslim groups and the occasional free agent such as Jordi the gypsy (Reda Kateb) — is mirrored in how he seizes every opportunity for self-improvement, starting with learning to read and write more than his name. While the official language of the system is French, the Corsicans speak Corsu (a separate language combining French and Italian) and the Muslims Arabic. Malik, whose full name means king of the graveyard, is smart, driven and a fast learner. He knows when to tell the truth, when to grease a palm, when to cut the crap and take direct action. He even manages to become fluent in Corsu, to Luciani’s shock.

Although Malik necessarily has to spend a great deal of time with Luciani, his two closest friends are Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) and Ryad (Adel Bencherif). It’s Reyeb’s encouragement that leads to his education — in more ways than one — while Ryad’s befriending and implicit trust in Malik is what truly enables him to grow. Slowly he develops contacts, makes connections, takes risks and cleverly juggles various duties while handling the consequences forthrightly. This ability to see ahead and adapt accordingly is what earns him the nickname of prophet.

The movie is filmed tightly, with most of the shots containing no more than two people to emphasize the imprisonment. There are plenty of perspective shots, and the hand-held jumpiness prevents staleness or claustrophobia; but Audiard and editor Juliette Welfling cleverly ensure there’s no feeling of freedom in the camera work. The style is reminiscent of several crime TV shows, but the intertitles hark back to the formality of an older time in cinema. They also subtly reflect Malik’s thought process.

Once the film opens out beyond the prison gates, there’s the hope that Malik would be able to escape, if only metaphorically. But Mr. Audiard is too smart for that. Malik’s choices are constrained by his color, his connections and his convictions. So all the choices he makes are the best he can do in the circumstances, and some of those choices are very smart indeed. Mr. Audiard has spoken about wanting to reflect on French cinema screens the reality of a multi-ethnic modern street; "The Secret of the Grain (Couscous)," "The Class" and "Code Unknown" are starting to do this, and "Days of Glory" (about Algerian soldiers fighting for France in WWII) was the first period film to do so. It should be a source of embarrassment to the French that their cinema is still generally struggling to rise above racial stereotypes.

The main problem with "A Prophet" is an obvious one for a prison film: the lack of women. Ryad’s wife, Djamila (Leïla Bekhti), is one of only three female characters. A movie that begins where this one ends would have been about French Muslim society as a whole, not just this slice of it. That said, Mr. Rahim — whose previous acting credits were small parts on television — more than rises to the challenge of making Malik utterly compelling throughout his journey. Mr. Arestrup manages to use his physical frailty to convey enormous threat in a way no English-speaking star of that generation would be willing to match; there’s great tension every time he is on screen. The movie is more than two hours, and feels quite long; but every step is necessary, gripping and intense. The awards it is beginning to win are well deserved.


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