A Prophet is an astounding, wholly gripping French film which is both a prison drama and a gangster thriller, and my guess is that, when it comes to the best foreign film category at this year’s Oscars, it’ll be between this and Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon. Obviously, I cannot say which will win, just as I can’t yet say what I won’t be wearing to the Oscars. Every year, it’s the same: they don’t invite me and I then have to worry about what not to wear. Should I not wear the oyster-pink chiffon? And, if not, what shoes am I not going to put with it? I do wish they’d stop not inviting me. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Anyhow, A Prophet is directed by Jacques Audiard who also directed The Beat that my Heart Skipped (the one about the fella torn between a life of crime and being a concert pianist, as can happen) and Read my Lips (the one about the ex-con and the deaf lady) and is shaping up nicely as one of the most gifted and exceptional directors around. He is particularly skilled at getting inside the heads of his characters, who are always interesting, multilayered characters, which is good, as you wouldn’t want to get inside the head of a Sandra Bullock character. (Sandra Bullock: how does she choose her films these days? With a blindfold and pin?)
Our character here is Malik (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old illiterate French Arab who has been brought up in juvenile homes and arrives in prison to serve a six-year sentence for beating up a cop. He intends to keep his head down and do his time but, instead, a wily and malevolent Corsican gang boss (Niels Arestrup), who runs his businesses from his prison cell, presents him with an offer that he cannot refuse: murder a fellow prisoner or be murdered yourself. Take your pick. The first 20 minutes or so contains a scene of such shocking and terrifying violence that I had to pull my polo neck over my head. I do not know, by the way, if this is what I will be wearing to the Oscars, as what if Angelina Jolie also wears a polo neck pulled over her head? How embarrassing is that going to be? And don’t tell me Hello! isn’t going to notice, because it surely will. We’ll be a laughing stock.
Now, where were we? Oh, yes. The Corsicans adopt Malik as a slave and errand boy, abusing him all the while — ‘you dirty Arab!’ — yet offering protection in return. Meanwhile, Malik is watching, listening, learning. He is taught to read and write in the prison school. He teaches himself to speak Corsican. Prison gives him more opportunities than he’s ever previously had. He’s an individualist and, it turns out, a formidable player. The Corsicans treat him as an Arab. The Arabs treat him as a Corsican. He begins to plot in the gap between the two, playing one faction against the other. And the power shifts. Malik is no better and no worse than anyone he encounters, but because we are so in his head, we are always with him. We are as driven by his need to survive as he is.
Usually, I don’t much like films in which males throw violence at any problem that comes their way, Tarantino-style, particularly when they could just bitch behind each other’s backs, like women do. (That’s not nice either, but at least no one gets their cheek sliced off.) But this is such an intensely mature piece of work featuring such intensely mature performances — Rahan’s artless charisma, in particular, provides real weight — that I was too involved to let it bother me. You want a comparison? OK, it feels a bit like Taxi Driver, which is just as uncomfortable, but also does a damned fine job of drawing you into a particular man’s lonely, alienated world. And Audiard’s direction not only keeps everything going at speed — it is so fast it’s almost episodic — but also uses a variety of visual distortions to mirror what Malik is going through. Jerky, handheld camera work, for example, mirrors the unpredictability of the prison violence, while whole frames are closed down to give us a sense of his incarceration. Does the film ultimately glorify violence? I suspect so. But was I ever bored? I was not. And that’s what matters most, I think.
And now, if you don’t mind, it’s only five weeks until the Oscars so I really need to work out what I’m not going to wear. At the moment, I’m thinking of not wearing the vintage Chanel I don’t have, but I might change my mind, so do watch this space. I know you’ll want to be updated.