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A Prophet
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A Prophet – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Malik (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate, 19 year-old French Arab, is sent to a tough prison, where Arabs and Muslims, live on one cellblock and the Corsicans, lead by the feared kingpin, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), live in another. He, however, chooses solitary existence and keeps his head low.

But soon Cesar Luciani catches up with him and forces him to kill an Arab convict, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), who, fearing for his life, locks himself in his cell.

In return, Malik is rewarded with Cesar’s protection and becomes his servant, fixing tea and running errands for him, and gradually becomes his confidant. He relentlessly tries to fit in with the Corsicans, assiduously learning their language and adapting their habits. But they reject him, treating him like an outsider and calling him a dirty Arab.

The Arabs also despise him for his association with the Corsicans, albeit they are compelled to seek his mediation when they needed a favour from Cesar, who holds a lot of power and influence in the prison.

Occasionally, Cesar secures leave for Malik to do his criminal business outside the prison walls. While outside, Malik sets up a Hashish trade with a former Muslim convict, Riad (Adel Bencherif), whom he had met at the prison’s school, where he learned to read and write.

Cesar reacts viciously when he learns of Malik’s Hashish business, almost pulling his eye out of its socket. Cesar’s brutality conduces Malik to get closer to the Muslims.

When Cesar feels that he is being phased out of power by his boss outside, he sends Malik to assassinate him. Having had enough of Cesar, Malik contrives a different plan for the assassination.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

On the face of it, this is a gripping, suspenseful thriller, packed with gang wars, gruesome violence and hideous bloody scenes. A Prophet, however, offers a profound study of social conflict that goes far deeper than a mere gangster war and drug trade.

The prison feels like a microcosm of the French (or any western) society, where mistrust, prejudices, racism and hate reins, particularly against Arabs and Muslims, who are regarded as subhuman, lacking the capacity to think and the ability to progress.

In spite of his utter subjection, slavish devotion and relentless attempts to assimilate in the Corsican group, Malik is invariably reminded that he is a dumb dirty Arab and he will always be an outsider. This humiliating rejection imbues Malik with blind anger and vengeful hate, and eventually leads him to utilise what he learned from his brutal master, Cesar, in order to destroy him and his gang. Was the filmmaker alluding to the fact that Islamic anger and terrorism boils from the alienation and exclusion of Muslims by the European societies?

Malik is the spine of this movie, his harrowing journey from a naive, shy and illiterate boy to an admired leader of all the warring factions is absorbing and compelling. But he had to endure terrifying ordeals in order to survive and prevail. He kills a fellow Arab in order not to be killed by the Corsicans and then bears a humiliating and brutal treatment by his Corsican master in return for protection.

Endurance, however, toughens him up. He watches, listens and learns to read and write. He also realises that he has to affiliate to his own in order to attain warmth, support and respect.

Tahar Rahim embodies Malik’s character impressively. His performance is mesmerising, and his innocent, childish face illicits empathy and likability. He kills, steals and trades in drugs, but we don’t cease to care for him. We fear for him when he nervously practices concealing a razor blade inside his bleeding mouth and we smile when he giggles delightfully like a child as he takes his first flight.

Niels Arestrup’s performance is no less hypnotic in betraying the fearless Corsican kingpin, Cesar. He petrifies us with his glaring eyes when he rages and horrifies us with his ferocity when he attacks.

The script is taut and the direction is masterful. Jacques Audiard creates pulse-pounding setpieces and deploys iris-shots, slow-motion, shaky camera, energetic editing and intertitles to tell an intricately complex story. He disturbs us with the claustrophobic scenes of Malik murdering Reyeb with a razor blade, thrills us with chase sequences and battles between gangs and keeps us on the edge of our seats for 2 1/2 hours.

The film is dark and realist in tone and mood, but it’s speckled with fantastic scenes of Reyeb’s ghost coming back to haunt Malik. These scenes deepen his character and enhance his inner conflict. Not only does Malik have to survive the villains around him but he also has to battle the demons within him. The ghost chastises, torments and eventually inspires him.

This is a film about survival, belonging and identity as much as it’s about gangsters, crime and profitability. It’s original in its premise, refreshing in its approach, lyrical in its sequences, poetic in its visuals and profound in its meaning. It has already won many prestigious awards, including The Star of London and is a front runner for the foreign language Oscars.

Opens Nationwide on 22nd January 2010

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