Movies: A Prophet * * * *
(16, LIMITED RELEASE)
Already the darling of the European festival circuit, where it picked up the Grand Prix at Cannes, A Prophet looks set for further kudos by being France's entry for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Directed by Jacques Audiard, the man behind Read My Lips and the riveting The Beat That My Heart Skipped, this is a very cool and utterly compelling crime thriller that should find a wider audience beyond its arthouse core.
Tahar Rahim makes a seriously impressive debut as Malik, a French-Corsican 19-year-old jailed for six years in one of France's toughest and most dangerous prisons. Friendless and vulnerable, Malik is taken under the wing of the clink's most powerful prisoner Luciani (Niels Arestrup).
Initially treated as a skivvy by the gang, the fast-learning Malik is soon trusted with more important deals and missions, and once he earns temporary release, he secretly starts making his own risky plans that don't involve taking orders from anyone else.
A Prophet begins weaving a suspenseful cloak of all-pervasive menace and tension within its first 20 minutes. A stunning sequence in which the naive Malik is trained to kill an informer is reminiscent of Michael Corleone's induction into crime in The Godfather, with a razorblade in the mouth replacing the gun stuck behind the toilet cistern. It's one of several knowing winks at that crime classic, the other being the suitably Brando-esque performance from Arestrup (and indeed a minor hood is even brazenly named 'Corleoni').
A Prophet isn't a shlocky pastiche however; Audiard infuses the prison-crime tropes with his own refreshing spin. Neither is he afraid to look at the awkward and continually troubling questions of French racial politics. The only way A Prophet falters at all is by way of some curious gaps in narrative: characters are introduced and then never returned to, a fantasy element jars slightly, and the apparently vital concept of Malik as a titular prophet is never realised (at least to this viewer). These are small quibbles though in a highly recommended movie.