Eye For Film >> Movies >> A Prophet (2009) Film Review
Reviewed by: Val Kermode
Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives in prison with no history. He is a 19 year-old Arab, illiterate, with neither friends nor family, and in this setting where allegiances are all important the pull of two different communities will have a vital effect on his future. His vulnerability is soon spotted by Cesar Luciani (Niels Avestrup), the Dennis Hopper-like kingpin of the Corsican contingent who rule the largely Arab prison community. Cesar asks Malik to carry out a killing. If he refuses he himself will be killed. The young man's desperation as he prepares himself is powerfully captured and the murder, which of course does not go as smoothly as planned, makes gripping viewing. As a result, Malik gains Cesar's protection, but the relationship is one of control. Malik gains material comforts, but is not allowed to forget that he is the Arab and the errand boy, carrying out the dirty work.
But Malik uses his eyes and ears. He is bright, opportunistic and above all adaptable. This is the rise to power of a new kind of hero, for whom prison provides an education in every sense, so that ultimately he reaches a position he could never have attained otherwise.
As some of the Corsicans are moved out and Malik builds a relationship with another Arab, Ryad (Adel Bencherif), the power balance begins to shift. Malik gains day release, initially to help Cesar, but soon sets up his own operation and makes his own connections. With every move we see Malik become stronger and more his own man.
The film (despite not being made in an actual prison) presents a very credible prison setting. No sadistic guards here, but the corruption of the system is taken for granted and the place seems to be tightly run by the inmates themselves with the ever-present threat of violence. Audiard's camera takes us right into the heart of the violence, and the sound (or at one point the lack of sound) is equally important. The tension is sustained even when Malik is outside the prison.
Though he inhabits this world of raw violence with no room for romance or sentimentality, he is not without conscience. The ghost of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), the man he so reluctantly murdered, visits him often. There is nothing mystical about this. The scenes are matter of fact. He has killed a man and that is something irreversible. We are reminded of this in one scene where a woman offers to wash his shirt,then apologises because she can't get rid of the bloodstains.
Why a prophet? Malik is a man who seems to come from nowhere and resolutely follows his own path. He sees the way the world works and makes it work for him. At one point he seems to forsee a future event in a dream. He is perhaps a prototype for a new kind of hero.
Audiard was keen to cast a relatively unknown actor in this part, and Tahar Rahim makes Malik believable and sympathetic as a profoundly disadvantaged child rapidly learning to become a man. He allows us little glimpses of how it feels to him to fly for the first time or to walk on the soft sand of a beach. There is also the suggestion at the end of the film that some peace and happiness may await him.
This is a long film and at times the plot demands an effort of concentration, but it works both as a gripping thriller and as an unusually thoughtful political and social commentary.Reviewed on: 12 Jan 2010
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