24 July 2011 | bob the moo
Stylish and engaging crime story
The problem with praise is that so much is said and so much is built up that at times it can be quite imposing for me to approach a film to watch it for what it is. This happened with A Prophet, which is why it took me over a year to get around to watching it. The uniformly great praise and the awards all built this film up in my head as something that would be worthy, perhaps a little arty and maybe even deliberately inaccessible (which can be the case with some films that critics gush over – partly I think it makes them appear smart). Also, lest we forget, it is also in French and runs to almost two and a half hours long. However I decided it had been on my queue for far too long as it was and recently I sat to watch it.
What I found was not an art film, not a pretentious film, not a "foreign" film but rather just a really well told story of a young man falling into a life of crime but then climbing and scheming his way up it. The rather breathless manner in which the film has been discussed doesn't do it any favours because, if you ignore all the words, the film is just this and it does it very well indeed. The Malik at the start of the film is very different from the Malik in the later stages, even though only a few years have passed. The difference is very well handled and we see him grow in his abilities, his confidence and also his ruthlessness. All of this occurs in a consistent flow of narrative that begins with him being forced into a violent act (one that stays with him) but then making himself useful and starting his own things on the side. In terms of narrative events it is very well structured and easy to follow, but it is the emotional journey that adds layers to it.
I read one critic compare the journey from (comparative) innocence to that taken by Michael Corleone in The Godfather and, while the details are more low-key and grubby, it is a fair comparison. Malik is fascinating as he stresses himself sick over his first kill, but just as fascinating when playing the odds with the various factions he straddles with influence. He is never free of beatings or risk, but he engages in the way he deals with it all with confidence and a growing willingness to do what is required. Director Audiard delivers it all with a range of styles – most of which work. At times it feels very seedy and grey in colour, particularly at the start and the camera sits in corners and watches from afar; this then contrasts with other scenes where it owes a debt to Scorsese in the use of music and montages (Malik being put in role of porter to the sound of Nas being a sudden but effective change in style). I wasn't really feeling the use of words on the screen – it didn't seem to add much and it did feel a bit too derivative, but other than this I had no complaints.
The performances are mostly very strong. The standout is of course Rahim in the lead role; he convinces in his journey and he pitches his development just right across the film – never going too far from who he is, not becoming a different person, but just showing growth and change in small but important ways. Arestrup is nearly as good as the cruel but fading lord of the prison while Bencherif, Yacoubi and many others make convincing supports. The world of the prison also feels very real and very threatening and even the extras add to the feeling of the place.
A Prophet is a great film: a crime story with strong characters, well developed plot and a constant feel of risk and threat without being over the top or losing touch with the gritty real feel of the prison world. Directed with style (but not too much style) the film uses the cast well and produces a roundly engaging and satisfying story. Perhaps a bit too over-hyped and made out to be way more than it is, it is still very much seeing and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Goodfellas and other such crime stories.