Why do we love organized crime films? Let me count the reasons. They offer immersion into another culture operating within society, but independent of its mores. We are seduced by their proximity to the mundane as well as their verisimilitude. They mix the most pleasurable qualities of documentaries and wild fiction, leaving us feeling that we have learned some truth about the dark side. Yet within this paradoxical framework, they are escapist fantasy. Critics’ appreciation of the genre hasn’t changed much from “The Godfather” to “The Departed.” They laud the storytelling craft involved and the epic scale. Audiences’ tastes have shifted culturally, from the romantic films of yesteryear to the gritty realism of today.
But what hasn’t changed until now is the idea that these often grueling, episodic narrative behemoths are never just telling a story, but always the story of their ethnic and cultural sphere. “A Prophet,” from celebrated French writer/director Jacques Audiard, is perhaps the most unique film still working within the genre because it is completely singular and subjective. “A Prophet” stars Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena, a troubled youth of both French and Arab ancestry, as he serves a six-year sentence with hardened criminals. But with his public defender as his closest equivalent of family, Malik’s heritage is all but irrelevant and divisions of race prove arbitrary delineations of power. Up for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, “A Prophet” already won the Grand Prix at Cannes along with other awards.
It’s easy to read social messages into this film based on content alone. But it doesn’t have that kind of prescriptive oriented framework to raise awareness of an issue. “A Prophet” is much more about Malik as a specific and autonomous man than as a reactionary social construction. It’s a film obsessed with plot, placing action itself on at least equal footing with message and subtext. It maintains a brisk pace even at 150 minutes and holds attention like a great heist film.
Malik is illiterate, though bilingual, and an orphaned repeated juvenile offender. The audience is all but ready to forgive him of whatever trumped up charge finally landed him in the big house. In his first hours served he is of course mugged; then in his failed attempt to fight back we see something of his tenacious grit and ambition. But his true initiation comes when Niels Arestrup (a fantastic visceral force) as César Luciani, the leader of the Corsican gang, approaches him about murdering an Arab informant. “Either you kill him or I kill you,” said Luciani in a classic crime film offer the character can’t refuse. But squeamish and possibly even moral, Malik tries anything and everything to get out of it. After his many trials, the audience can no longer find him morally culpable, but that hardly eases his guilt.
For the rest of the film Malik has conversations with the man he murdered—the man who called him “brother.” But what do we make of these images? They are not literal hallucinations as in “Shutter Island,” nor are they literal ghosts. When Malik speaks to the specter, would an objective observer hear him? Are the images a magnification of his imagination, or poetic interpretation of subjective events? The camera often follows Malik’s perspective. It conveys his lost time in prison by showing only what’s relevant to plot. It introduces the iris effect as point of view, not merely for ostension, but to show Malik’s ignorance and limitations. These effects don’t necessarily make us care for him any more than his charm and wit already have, but they are the most interesting thing to happen to the genre in 40 years.
The action always associated with his rise to power is gleefully on point. By the end of the film, the scars on his back that once suggested hard times as a child take on a more villainous tone. They cease to be sympathetic and become ominous, yet still alluring. There are so many ways to appreciate this film. Do not miss it.