In the past couple of years, the French have been leading the way when it comes to gritty crime dramas, with last year alone seeing the some what preposterous but hugely entertaining Anything for Her, with Vincent Lindon, while Vincent Cassel gave a masterful performance in the two-part biopic of notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine. And now Jacques Audiard sets a serious marker for 2010 with only his fifth feature in 15 years.
In the past, Audiard (whose back catalogue is being screened during the next two weekends at the IFI) has shown a remarkable knack for creating vehicles which allow his leading actor to truly shine, providing a launch platform for Mathieu Kassovitz with See How They Fall and A Self-Made Hero, bringing Cassel to a new level in Read My Lips and allowing the world to see what Romain Duris had to offer in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Well, his knack for ideal casting certainly hasn't deserted him and A Prophet is dominated by a gripping performance from newcomer Tahar Rahim.
Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, a 19-year-old Arab sentenced to six years in a Paris prison for an unspecified crime. Illiterate and very much alone, Malik realises that he'd better make some friends pretty sharpish if he's to survive and, while friendship is hardly the right word for it, an opportunity quickly comes his way when the leader of the Corsican contingent in jail, Cesar (Niels Arestrup), makes him an 'offer' to eliminate an Arab prisoner who's about to testify against them.
With the protection of the Corsicans (and Audiard's casting comes through again here as Cesar's crew are the roughest-looking bunch of thugs we've seen on screen since Gomorrah), Malik gradually discovers manipulative skills he'd never realised he possessed.
And as he works his way through his sentence, he becomes adept at forming alliances with the various groups in prison which, in turn, leads to his preparations for life on the outside.
Audiard brings a sense of claustrophobia and an all-pervading hint of danger to the prison scenes, but is able to expand the visual palette in the second half of the film when Malik is occasionally allowed out on day release. Although what he gets up to wouldn't exactly be what the prison board had in mind for his rehabilitation.
Rahim is a powerful presence at the centre of this excellent movie, fully inhabiting the role of Malik as he moves from being submissive and servile to confident and crafty, and the changing dynamic between himself and Cesar -- as one's influence waxes while the other's wanes -- is subtly conveyed by both actors.
The violence, when it occurs, is graphic and believable, and although there is a dip in the final third before we reach the climax (Audiard could have easily trimmed 20 minutes or so off the film without losing too much of its impact), the power of A Prophet is undeniable.
Having already scooped the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and Best Film at the inaugural London Film Festival, this looks like a seriously good bet for the Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars. And it would be more than well deserved. HHHHI