Education of a felon

Pub date March 2, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM Filmmaker Jacques Audiard has described his new film, A Prophet, as “the anti-Scarface.” Yet why do this gripping, gritty feat of moviemaking — tutored though not neutered by the schools of grim social realism and grimy magical realism — that disservice? Why deny this heartfelt yet tough-minded entry into the prisonsploitation ranks of Cool Hand Luke (1967), Papillon (1973), and HBO’s Oz?

A Prophet‘s forebears are couched in the lyrics of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” (Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s version wheezes warmly over the final credits) and lurk in the memoirs of Edward Bunker and Jean Genet, rather than in the Grand Guignol fantasy of a snow-blind Al Pacino introducing us to his little friend. Yet much like Scarface (1983), A Prophet bottles the heady euphoria that chases the empowerment of the powerless and the rise of the long-shot loner on the margins — permutations of the capitalist success story and odes to hard-working individualism familiar to, say, Michael Mann fans. Still, that swirl of programmatic referents shouldn’t discount the inspired rigor of A Prophet, which — in its almost-Dickensian attention to detail, devotion to its own narrative complexity, and passion for cinematic poetry — rises above the ordinary and, through the prism of genre, finds its own power.

The supremely opportunistic, pragmatically Machiavellian intellectual and spiritual education of a felon is the chief concern of A Prophet. Played by Tahar Rahim with the guileless open-faced charisma reminiscent of River’s Edge-era Keanu Reeves (though Rahim is more agile and pliable than the reserved Reeves), Malik is half-Arab and half-Corsican — and distrusted or despised by both camps in the pen. When he lands in jail for his six-year sentence, he’s 19, illiterate, friendless, and vulnerable enough to get his shoes snatched straight off his feet his first day in the yard. His deal with the devil — and means of survival — arrives with Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), temporarily locked up before his testifies against the mob. Corsican boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup, who resembles a scary, sketchy Father Christmas) wants him dead, and Malik, loudly propositioned by the would-be stoolie in the showers, is tagged to penetrate Reyeb’s defenses, namely his cell, with a blade hidden in mouth.

The bittersweet irony is that the man Malik must kill, at the risk of being killed himself, seemingly turns out to be the first to show him any kindness. During their brief, bloody tryst, the cultured Reyeb advises his assassin to educate himself behind bars, offering him gifts of books. And after Malik’s gory rebirth, as first a protected, contemptible serf serving the Corsicans, it turns out that the teenager’s a seer in more ways than one. From his low-dog position, he can eyeball the connections linking the drugs entering the prison to those circulating outside, as well as the machinations intertwining the Arab and Corsican syndicates — just as he happens to see, and confide in, the dead Reyeb, too. It’s no shock that when Cesar finds his power eroding and arranges prison leaves for his down-low, multilingual crossover star that Malik serves not only his Corsican master, but also his own interests, and begins to build a drug empire rivaling his teacher’s.

Throughout his pupil’s progress, Audiard demonstrates a way with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, and when Malik finally breaks with his Falstaffian, castrating patriarch, it makes your heart skip a beat in a move akin to the title of the director’s last film. It’s like several other exquisitely imperishable scenes in A Prophet: a sequence that aims for the chaotic, sensuous intercourse of a close-range shoot-out; the image of a sacrificial deer arcing through the air; the sight of Malik, awkward in a business suit, taking his first plane ride; a vision of a fragile rainbow coalition of crime. This Eurozone/Obama-age prophet is all about the profit — Malik is a biracial, border-crossing player who has translated his survival skills into power-grabbing opportunity — but here he’s imbued with grace, even while gaming for ill-gotten gain.

A PROPHET opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.