Feted at Cannes, a box-office smash in France, scooping the top prize at the London Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet plays a little like a thoroughly Gallicised version of The Shawshank Redemption – if you can imagine Shawshank way downer-and-dirtier and shorn of all hint of sunny final redemption.
For a start, the young hero of this tale, Malik El Djebena (a staggeringly assured performance from newcomer Tahar Rahim), may be naïve but he’s definitely no wrongly-accused innocent. (Involvement in a cop-killing, we gather.)
Banged up in one of France’s toughest jails, at first he finds himself hopelessly adrift and frequently getting la merde kicked out of him by one and all. But sacré bleu, the boy learns fast.
Taken under the wing of resident Corsican godfather César Luciani (veteran Niels Arestrup) and forced to kill a fellow con by way of initiation rite – a staggering set-piece – Malik rapidly susses how to play the jail’s three racial groupings (Corsican, Italian, Arab) off against each other. And with Luciani, who has the prison authorities in his pocket, wangling him frequent day passes to run errands, Malik’s soon setting up his own drugs racket on the outside.
For a time, the lad goes about his business wholly under the thumb of his patron. But gradually, grippingly, the apprentice comes to outstrip his master. A few narrative ellipses later, the shrewd use of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack The Knife’ on the soundtrack tells us just what he’s turned into.
Using real cons for his support roles, Audiard creates a grittily convincing prison milieu. The intricacies of the plot aren’t always easy to follow, and a fantasy element never quite gels with the rest: Malik’s murder victim pops up every so often for a friendly chat, and there’s some business with a dream of deer that aims to justify the film’s title.
But all in all, this makes a fair bid for any list of great prison dramas.
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Audiard follows The Beat That My Heart Skipped with another riveting insight into French thug life. The unsparing atmosphere – and Tahar Rahim’s star-making turn – will sweep you along.