The “anti-Scarface”. That’s what director Jacques Audiard dubs his French underworld thriller.
Sure enough, our 19-year-old ‘hero’ Malik (Tahar Rahim) is no Tony Montana. In fact, we know nothing about him: he’s just another of modern France’s unwashed, illiterate street children. But as this “dirty Arab” is hurled into prison for a petty offence, so A Prophet busts out through the bars of the crime genre’s clichés.
Under the brutal education of Corsican kingpin César (Niels Arestrup), Malik toughens before our eyes. First, with a razorblade clenched inside his bleeding mouth, he must kill or be killed in a sequence of savagery. And from there – splintering between cellblock saga, crime thriller and personal odyssey – A Prophet’s complexity multiplies.
Tough, absorbing and claustrophobic, it’s an intensely detailed account of prison life and criminal politics. Violence detonates in brief, explosive bursts – anything from a point blank handgun to a hot spoon. But really, A Prophet is a brutally cynical story about survival and power told through real faces. “I wanted to make a fictional film with people who weren’t recognisable,” says Audiard, on this two-discer’s 14-minute featurette. “This is a story of someone who has no identity or story who ends up with a story and an identity.”
What lifts it further is that Malik’s hard-knocks ascendancy seems to be fated by enigmatic powers of prophecy and visions of a friendly ghost. Unlike The Godfather and the ’60s gangster pics of auteur Jean-Pierre Melville – both deftly referenced – A Prophet spikes its concrete vérité-visuals with flashes of cine-fantasy. Freeze-frames, on-screen titles and pinhole iris-effects all point to Malik’s fascinating unknowability. But if the film’s characters are ciphers, they’re superbly textured ones.
On screen practically in every shot, newcomer Rahim pulls a poker-faced performance that clings to our sympathy even while keeping us at arm’s length. Subtly gaining in depth, he remains a loner we never get bored of watching.
Not only are Rahim’s screentests on the DVD but the rehearsals too, revealing how Audiard helped refine his lead man’s performance – and his hair. “I met him by chance and it sounds stupid but it was almost love at first sight,” explains Audiard, who also lays commentary over 10 minutes of deleted scenes.
Spanning years and 150 minutes of screen time, A Prophet’s labyrinthine plot strands do feel woven too intricately and stretched too thin. But Audiard’s tense storytelling just manages to keep up its drive, pepped by an eclectic soundtrack.
Excellent Making Of documentary Behind Bars proves just as meaty, packing more than an hour of behind-thescenes footage, raw rushes, analysis and interviews with all the cast and crew.
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