A Prophet (18)

4.00

A cut above the rest

Jacques Audiard is a film-maker who understands the dramatic – and sometimes comic – thrills of self-invention. In A Self-Made Hero (1996) Mathieu Kassowitz played a man who counterfeited a glorious past as a Resistance fighter. In Read My Lips (2001) a put-upon secretary turns her deafness to account in an elaborate plan to rip off her boss. In The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) a small-time Parisian hoodlum puts aside his thuggish tendencies to explore his potential as a classical pianist. Audiard's characters are schemers and strivers: by dint of graft, wit and endurance they make a journey of transformation before our eyes. It is precisely what great drama should be about.

Malik El Djebena, the Arab teen protagonist of his latest film, A Prophet, faces the toughest trial yet: a Darwinian struggle for survival inside a brutal French prison. Sent down for six years, 19-year-old Malik can't read or write, hasn't a family on the outside nor a friend on the inside, and on his first day in jail is violently mugged for his trainers. If only that was the worst of it. We don't know what crime Malik was sentenced for, but it obviously wasn't murder, because he almost combusts with panic when the prison's Corsican gang boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) coerces him into bumping off an Arab inmate who is due to testify against his interests. "I can't kill anyone," Malik mutters forlornly to himself – but he must, and soon, otherwise they are going to kill him.

His dilemma is as bleak as can be, and his crash-course in how he solves it makes the first 40 minutes of the film almost unbearably tense. The mechanics of how the would-be assassin should hide his razor-blade, and when he should make his deadly thrust into the jugular, are explained in intimate and appalling detail. The deed itself is one of the nastiest and bloodiest I can recall in recent cinema. What's odd about the film – what interrupts its otherwise downbeat mood of documentary realism – is that the murder victim, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), appears more often post-mortem than he did in actual human form. His unearthly presence will determine the entire moral shape of A Prophet. Is Reyeb a protective ghost or the manifestation of Malik's unquiet conscience? We find out, though not before we have witnessed the latter's comprehensive self-education in how to get ahead.

At the heart of Malik's problem is race. The Corsican thugs for whom he works despise him as "a dirty Arab", while his own dark-skinned neighbours disdain him for a Corsican turncoat. Caught dangerously between them, Malik starts from scratch – he learns to read and write – and gradually picks up the Italian slang of Cesar and his cronies. Little by little he hauls himself up the jailbird ladder of influence, earning the perks of a fridge and a TV in his cell, keeping his eyes and ears open for the boss, before finally securing his confidence. Allowed an occasional day pass from prison, Malik pursues Corsican "business" while on the sly he launches his own fiefdom of drug-dealing in cahoots with an ex-prison friend. The worm is turning.

The story of this parallel rise and fall is superbly embodied in two major performances. Tahar Rahim, a sweet-faced newcomer, lends an astonishing sense of wary reserve to Malik, pale with fear to begin, feral in that defining act of his prison life, and later perfectly unreadable as he plays both ends of the equation from the middle. Watching him, you feel the subtle pressure of the film's scepticism about the French prison system: it is turning a genuinely resourceful young man into a career criminal. Niels Arestrup, the racketeer father in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, is entertainingly hateful as the ageing capo Cesar, the sort of man who would be called a father figure if only he had anything approximating to paternal warmth. He gives his protégé a vicious smack just for being cleverer than he ever suspected. Never having met a crime-boss lifer I can't vouch for the authenticity, but I imagine that Arestrup's impersonation nails the type pretty convincingly.

The film makes light work of its two-and-a-half hour length, though it perhaps takes some wrong turnings. Quite out of the blue Audiard and his co-writer, Thomas Bidegain, introduce a mystical element into Malik's charmed life; it refers to the film's title, though it upstages a taut encounter with an Arab crimelord that was just about to get interesting. This diversion might be accounted for by the script's origins in another screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit. If the denouement isn't easy to unpick it is nevertheless as suffocating as a mafioso's garotte. A Prophet will be bracketed in years to come as a prison drama, but it will stay in the memory of those who see it as a character study, bristling with cross-currents of feeling and sharp observation. A startling example, near the end: as Malik passes through airport security and submits to being frisked, he inadvertently opens his mouth wide, a prison habit to show that he's not hiding anything in there. It's a comic touch, yet also a tragic echo, for this was exactly where Malik secreted the razor-blade that first cut him adrift from his own humanity.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference