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'A Prophet' Forged In Prison
Directed by Jacques Audiard (2009)
Howard Schumann (howard16)     Print Article 
Published 2009-10-16 09:39 (KST)   
Howard Schumann rates 'A Prophet' an A.  <Editor's Note>
A 19-year-old man of North African origin is sentenced to six years in prison for assaulting a police officer. When he enters prison, he is naive, shy, and almost withdrawn and cannot read or write. When he leaves six years later, he has become a self possessed, educated individual, capable of controlling his own destiny as well as that of others.

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ef=http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002191/>Jacques Audiard's ("Read My Lips", "The Beat That My Heart Skipped") A Prophet, winner of the Grand Prix Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is an engrossing coming-of-age drama set in a French prison in which Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a Muslim estranged from his own community, is recruited into the ruling Corsican Mafia and eventually becomes a gang leader himself. Though deeply involved in nefarious and often bloody activities, the genuineness of his personality makes him an appealing and sympathetic character and adds depth to a riveting experience.

Based on a story by screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri, the film clocks in at a lengthy 150 minutes but never feels padded or stretched out. Unable to film in an actual prison location (because they were all being used), Audiard had his own prison built in an industrial area of Paris.

As he explains, "Watching it take shape helped us build the prison in our minds, as well."

When Malik first arrives, he is singled out by Corsican Mafia boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and told to kill a fellow Muslim prisoner Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) by slitting his throat with a razor blade. If he refuses, he will be killed himself.

Once the job is done in as brutal a killing scene as you will ever witness (or want to witness), Malik is put under Cesar's protection, becoming the Corsican's Arab who carries out menial tasks for him inside the prison.

Beset by visions of the deceased Reyeb, Malik, however, soon begins to educate himself on many levels, not only learning to read, but teaching himself Corsican and learning details of Luciani's business. More importantly for his survival, he learns how to operate among the various prison subcultures with their various rituals and codes of honor though he is still an outsider, not fully trusted by either group.

There is no shortage in the film of details involving drug trafficing, sex, payoffs, and general prison corruption; things we have seen before, yet the level of our personal involvement remains high due to the heart pounding set pieces and the compelling performances of the lead actors. Slowly, Cesar raises the level of jobs given to Malik, affording him the opportunity to leave the confinement of the prison on several day passes, one involving his first ever flight to Marseilles to negotiate with another Mafia kingpin.

Little by little, Malik sets up his own enterprises with his friend Ryad (Adel Bencherif) who is suffering from cancer, and begins to establish his independence from the Corsicans. He becomes known as a prophet when he survives a bizarre car crash, an incident that has been foretold in a fantasy sequence.

Supported by a compelling original score by Alexandre Desplat and brilliant cinematography by Stephane Fontaine, "A Prophet" is violent, often ugly and difficult to watch, but is redeemed by the quality of the direction, the outstanding performances by Rahim and Arestrup and the honesty in which it handles the conflicts among ethnic groups, conflicts that mirror French society as a whole.

Tahar Rahim is little more than a cipher at the beginning, yet acquires considerable strength of character by the end of the film.

According to Audiard, "When I looked into his eyes there was no melancholy, no tragedy, just someone very open, very light, very full of life."

A mixture of gritty reality, flights of fancy, identity exploration, and psychological character study, "A Prophet" is one of the best films of 2009.
This article has not appeared in any other news medium but has been submitted to Cinescene (www.cinescene.com)
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Howard Schumann

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