Gritty French prison drama keeps it real
Malik (Tahar Rahim), 19 and facing a six-year stint in prison for assaulting police officers and a string of other crimes, is illiterate and without any family or friends on the outside. He has the feral intensity of a kid who has been living by his wits, staying one step ahead of the bigger predators in the urban jungle. He speaks French and Arabic, but neither group seems particularly eager to claim him, although both will use him for their own aims.
He is approached during his initial days by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the hardened silver-maned godfather of the prison system with its rival factions and bribes that extend from the guards to the parole board and the judges outside the prison walls. He is told to kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab snitch, to earn protection or be killed and he quickly learns there is no way out. So, Malik kills Reyeb and sets on a path that will eventually place him in a confrontation with Luciani for power and control of a vast criminal underworld.
Yet A Prophet, for all its epic pretense and viciousness that threaten our delicate sensibilities, engrosses and engages because it maintains a grim unblinking focus on Malik and his education in this seedy world. He is befriended by several key guardian angels and devils (angels and devils being one and the same here) and displays moments of clarity and luck that border on something like prophecy (although for brief mentions of religion, it is obvious that there are no believers to be found anywhere here). Through it all, his most constant companion is Reyeb, in a spirit form that sometimes speaks to Malik of things to come or appears smoldering in the flames of the afterlife as a sign that there will be hell to pay. But never does the appearance of Reyeb, even in his most artful incarnations, feel like a cheap manipulative trick or an intrusion into the dark reality. He is real to Malik, a reminder of that original sin and that you can never turn back.
Hip hop signifies about keeping it real and spins tales of running guns, chasing paper in the streets and all manner of dirty deeds. However, even the illest and dopest rhymes traffic in mythmaking and self-aggrandizing boasts where the storyteller, a stand-in for old wily Ulysses himself, is only waxing poetic with a nod to the idea that when his story is retold it will be further exaggerated beyond any semblance of the truth.
Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard knows the game all too well (of course he does, he’s a filmmaker) and he lets us know that he’s hip to the rules (he skillfully inserts hip hop and other musical cues to flash his street cred). Even so, he wants Malik to feel more real than legendary. In the end, he doesn’t want us to lose sight of the fact that even Malik cannot outlive the game.
A Prophet will be shown exclusively at the Little Art Theatre