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Following up his gripping and much praised drama The Beat that My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arríªté, 2005), Jacques Audiard’s latest effort feels almost like a continuation of that film in many respects. In A Prophet (Un prophí¨te), we are in dark territory again as the writer-director dives into the murky pool of the Gallic underworld once more when youngster Malik El Djebena (played by newcomer Tahar Rahim) is sentenced to a six-year stint in prison and soon becomes embroiled in the gang culture and petty intricacies that preside. The young Arab is forced to align with a Corsican gang, led by César Luciani (a disquieting performance by the ever-excellent Niels Arestrup), and although initially treated with little more than contempt by them, finds himself rising up the ranks through a series of often violent acts.
Arestrup reprises the ambiguous fatherly role, part ogre, part mentor, that he was already filling in The Beat that My Heart Skipped, while Rahim plays Malik with the same sort of nervous intensity Romain Duris brought to the character of Thomas Seyr in the same film. The score by Alexandre Desplat recalls the subtle strains underlining Thomas’s struggle to better himself that the composer had concocted for The Beat. Audiard’s interest in exclusively male environments, evident in the rest of his work, is here exacerbated by the prison setting. Just like Thomas in The Beat, Malik is caught between two worlds, this time defined by racial and ethnic ties rather than familial ones, and succeeds in negotiating his own, individual path between them.
Perhaps it is the familiarity of the theme and of its treatment that lessens the impact of what is otherwise an excellent film. Yet, to be fair to Audiard, the elements that are specific to A Prophet very much matter, especially when considering the climate of racial tension in France. While A Prophet charts a transfer of power from a father figure to the son, from the older generation to the younger, as in The Beat, this time it is also about the victory of an intelligent young Arab over the racist Corsican thugs who despised and mistreated him. And where The Beat deliberately presented a very unglamorous view of the underworld, A Prophet is entirely accepting of Malik’s various criminal activities. In fact, incarceration, although harsh, is paradoxically what gives Malik the opportunities he never had outside as an isolated, illiterate young man with no family and no possessions: opportunities to learn, grow, become someone (even if that’s the leader of a criminal gang) and create ties with the Arab community.
Those who have yet to be captivated by the prodigious talents of the director may find this film a somewhat challenging introduction - there’s certainly more warmth and originality in The Beat that My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips (Sur mes lí¨vres, 2001) - and at a bum-numbing 149 minutes this sprawling gangster saga is not for those with an MTV attention span. However, there’s a reason why it was so acclaimed at both the Cannes and London Film Festivals (at the latter, it won The Star of London Best Film award): its gritty, realistic portrayal of life within the brutal corridors of prison is thoroughly riveting and makes another impressive addition to Audiard’s growing filmography.
Toby Weidmann & Virginie Sélavy