Wheww!  You want to see a very tough prison film, don’t slow up with Dead Man Walking, or The Green Mile, don’t pause at the two Iranian prison movies I’ve reviewed lately, Women’s Prison and Day Break.  Go directly to  Jacques Audiard’s 2009 A Prophet. Instead of the Black Guerillia Family vs The Aryan Brotherhood vs The Mexican Mafia you’ll have the Corsicans vs the Arabs, with some Gypsy smugglers thrown in for added blood.  Whether you like this move or loathe it, rush to buy a ticket or boycott a theater that would show it, depends a good deal on your take on prison and gangster movies in general, and on those that don’t project moral uplift in particular.  It depends on whether Quentin Tarantino is a guide for you:  He loved it.

I usually think that when carving up the enemy is the leading reason proposed to see a film, caution is in order and, had I known more about A Prophet before I watched it, I might not have.  I was rivited, however.  The blood and the beatings and the knifings were the necessary accompaniment of tension that worked throughout the film: would the runt make it?  How would the bargain he had made [been forced into] with the Corsican mob end?

Audiard sets a blistering pace that almost never lets up.  Malik [Tahar Rahim],  a 19 year old boy, jut too old for Juvie  and unable to not hit cops, is thrown into the big house.  The Corsicans run the place — they say, and the guards prove by the orders carried out.  The Arabs — of all kinds– are still a minority of sorts, and keep to themselves.  Malik is  a French street Cosican-Arab, not knowing his mother or father.  He speaks French and Arabic in the beginning and is unable to read.  He has no built-in gang and is an easy mark, no matter how tough he was on the outside. The early scenes convince us that he is scared, and vulnerable, trying to figure what to do in a new and threatening world.  He looks utterly forlorn in a few scenes.

Following right behind him into prison is an Arab informer, Reyeb [Adel Bencherif].  The Corsicans want to get rid of him before he testifies in court.  They need to have clean hands, however, and their older, vicious leader, César Luciani [old pro Niels Arestrup]  decides Malik is just the one to do. They’ve already noticed the snitch has propositioned him in the showers for sex.

“Get close to him, ask him about his family.  Say you’ll do it.  Then, like this!”  His instructor lurches up, spits a razor out of his mouth and shows where to cut the neck.  The scene showing the successful student is perhaps the most horrifying such killing I’ve ever seen in a movie.  How they managed to film it, without an actual body or two being left behind, is beyond me.  Malik is now “under the protection” of the Corsicans, which is just a beginning.  He is their “gofer,” he does what he is ordered to do — from being the maid in prison to arranging a hostage swap during a day long furlough arranged by Cesar, to finally being the prime muscle for any job at all.

Malik is quick to understand the fragility of his life “under protection” and without power of his own. The consummate smart and tough opportunist he knows that power lies in knowledge — of those around him, and of their vulnerabilities, as well as of his own physical strength and willingness to use it, without conscience.  He learns to read French from Reyeb [Hichem Yacoubi], a kindly Muslim who introduces him to others in the Arab side of the prison — and protects him when they attack him as a Corsican.  He learns Corsican.  When many of César’s gang are transfered to a prison closer to home, Malik becomes the old man’s “eyes and ears.”  Meanwhile, Malik has arranged other businesses on the side.  Reyeb is released and organizes a drug ring.  Inside Malik works with a Gypsy hash smuggler.  All of these businesses need guns, quick decisions and daring to keep going, and Malik seems to have enough of them all.  When César finds out about the competition for Malik’s attention he is not pleased, but in a sign of the changing of power, finds he cannot let him go. And, as a result, is ultimately betrayed.

On his last mission for César, Malik aand Reyeb  carry out an assassination of César’s own boss — on the outside– for betraying him in an association with a southern Italian mob.  It culminates in a terrifying and bloody shoot-out inside a van, like nothing I have ever seen.  Both it, and the initial neck slashing scene must have been hell to set up and shoot.  The actors are all within inches of the camera in very tight quarters, portraying extreme emotions and extreme physical reactions.  Extraordinary.

As violent a film as it is, A Prophet was the winner of 2009 Cannes Golden Palm, as well as the  Grand Prize of the Jury.  It almost swept the field in France’s 2010 César awards.  The vast percentage of comments at Rotten Tomatoes[97%], IMDB, YouTube [the sound track] and other sites, are loud in their praise.

One, of course,  can’t help but wonder about the title: A Prophet, in English, Un Prophete in French.   Is there a message here?  A pointer as to the meaning?  According to Audiard, not.  Un Prophete in French means one who see the future; it does not carry the metaphysical baggage  it does in English.  Audiard himself says

“Yes, the prophet is just a prophet!”  … “As for Jesus or Mohammed, I don’t ‘eat that kind of bread.'”

Of course to believe this you have to believe Audiard himself, and that he has no particular reason for the title. There is a scene late in the movie in which Malik is sent to negotiate by César with an Arab mobster,  Brahim Lattrache [Slimane Dazi],  to pull out of an alliance with the Italian mob.    Lattrache doesn’t trust an Arab who works for the Corsicans and, in his limo pulls a gun and threatens to blow him away.   Malik, the gun pressing into his cheek, sees a road sign indicating deer in the area, and recalling an earlier vision, shouts out that a deer is about to hit the car.  It does.   He escapes death and gets respect from the Lattrache:  “How did you do that?  Are you a prophet?”  The deal César wanted is sealed, so long as the snitch to the Italians  inside his organization is found out and disposed of.  Malik is now in the big-time –his skills, and his “fore-knowledge” respected by both sides.

As good as it is –emotionally gripping and convincing, technically superb with tight intimate shots of the violence and long, steady views of stationary men projecting ominous threats; the  lighting and sound track is utterly supportive and without the movie cliche’s for danger coming,  or fear and running –there is always a necessary question for me:  why does a writer write, or a film maker make, the work that eventually appears?   Why did Audiard, compared by some to France’s famous  gangster film maker Jean-Pierre Melville,  make this movie?

He has said that he had been to a prison on an arts program and was struck by an environment he hadn’t known before.  He wanted to make a film, and capture some of what he saw.  He says it is just that —  a story about men in prison, the power relations and the means of survival.  Nothing to be made of who wins and who loses, what the title might mean, or whether it is a mirror of a larger existing, or coming, world.

I am one of those who don’t believe this is possible: a story without a point of view.  To have no point of view is a point of view, as I see it.  And is  always that of the author.  It’s damned hard to write, much less write something you don’t believe in.  It’s damned hard to convince others to make a movie if you don’t believe in it.  If the story is about the rise of a tough, vicious, smart kid to the top ranks of a mob, and at the end all the characters look up to him, that is a point of view.  If he walks out of prison to meet the wife and child of his deceased best friend, to the jaunty acoustic rendition of Mack the Knife by Jimmy Dale Gilmore, that is a point of view.  This isn’t a movie about luck, or the dispensation of the gods.  It is about fighting and overcoming in what the story teller considers to be the primal human fight.  There may not be a laurel wreath bestowed on the winner but there is admiration implicit in the triumph.

I read a message here.

If you want to see a movie considered by many to be one of the best in a decade, this is one to watch.  Strong advisory to all.

Here are a couple of other reviews

Karin Badt, for Huff Po, written at Cannes in 2010

Rob Nelson for the Village Voice, who doesn’t like it.