Movie trailers really form our perception of a film before we buy our theater ticket. For many people it can make or break their feelings toward the film. The trailer for French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is practically an emotional journey unto itself and successfully whets the appetite for the entire experience. Once the viewer actually sits down in the theater, they are engulfed in a multi-layered crime saga that approaches characters in dangerous, brutal life or death situations. It doesn’t hurt that the trailer mentions that the film has already won the grand jury prize at Cannes and Britain’s BAFTA award, not to mention is a nominee in the best foreign film category for the Oscars this upcoming weekend. All accolades aside, A Prophet takes hold of the viewer with both visuals and storytelling, exceeding an impressive trailer.
When we first meet Malik (Tahar Rahim), he is a naïve and formerly uneducated 19 year-old who apparently has led a life on the streets, running in and out of juvenile custody. It is fairly vague why he is sentenced to a six-year incarceration (in a facility outside Paris), but is bluntly informed by his lawyer that he is now in with the big boys. Almost immediately this reality sinks in at the prison yard and communal showers, as Malik becomes prey for the veteran prisoners. He definitely does not succumb easily to any attacks, but he has no one to protect him on the inside or the outside. Even though the viewer knows Malik is a criminal of some sort, Rahim plays him so well with his dark, inviting features that even at his most ruthless, he is still a beloved character.
Malik is damaged goods and really has no direction and understanding of his situation or possibly even his life. As a great gangster film, there is the head boss who takes advantage of every possibility, including human life. Corsican mafia boss Luciani (Niels Arestrup) has control that exceeds past the walls of the prison and enlists Malik to assist with a deadly task. Eventually Malik becomes a lackey for Luciani’s gang; however he is regarded as an outsider due to being Arab. Malik shows no affiliation with the other Muslim prisoners or the Corsicans, insisting he is working only for himself. But by becoming an associate of Luciani’s crew, Malik receives special treatment from guards, eventually getting leave days, his own cell and a formal education. After years of adapting, Malik begins on a path that could destroy himself and those around him.
If the film focused on this character development and ended here it would still be a rewarding experience, but it goes well beyond the initial brutal beginnings. Malik’s years in the prison become graphic montages of violence as well as a maturation of a caged animal that adapts to his environment. The acting is brilliantly crafted with a background of stunning visuals that reflect the tragic realities of life and inner emotions of a haunted individual. A Prophet deserves all awards thus far and is highly recommended as an addition to the gangster film genre.
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