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A PROPHET

SYNOPSIS:
Sentenced to six years in prison, the almost illiterate, 19 year old part Arab part Corsican Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is quickly recruited by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), leader of the Corsican gang and ruling jail supremo. His first mission for Cesar is to kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Thus the young Malik begins his jail education which he enhances with genuine education, learning to read and write. He also observes the various illegal activities being run by Cesar and others, and secretly makes his own plans.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Simply put, A Prophet is the story of a poor, illiterate youngster of mixed blood whose parents had abandoned him and who has nothing - until he goes to prison for adults and slowly begins to make the most of his situation, finally becoming some sort of hero figure. That's the intention, anyway, and Jacques Audiard invests a great deal of cinematic effort to flesh out the story with much detail - which tends to become rather confusing. But that's not surprising because Audiard is perhaps confused about the thrust and themes of his screenplay. The title, for example, is a tease, the one allusion to it an irrelevant aside that simply confuses the scene into which it is inserted. As for the film being a hero's journey, it defies our usual conventions of morality in the process, another confusing factor for the audience.

But Tahar Rahim is excellent as the young crim, Malik, a mixed bag of youthful bravado and naïve vulnerability who is quick to adapt to his circumstances - and profit from them. He becomes subservient to the Corsican gang leader Cesar, superbly played by Niels Arestrup, and uses his position of proximity to power to assume some for himself. None of this is especially original but for a French filmmaker to make the character part Arab is of note, in a country where Arabs do not enjoy widespread admiration. The Corsicans are forever wary of the Muslim gang, and here Audiard is astute, setting two minorities against one another to cancel out the potential white backlash. Nor is Malik a typical criminal; indeed, he shuns thugs and their behaviour. And all this works well; it's when the story starts twisting round the characters and the illicit plotting of competing gangs inside and out that our attention is diluted.

The first act is well structured and establishes the characters, the place and the jail structures. The build up and execution of Malik's first mission to kill a fellow prisoner Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) is brutally tense. But we haven't seen the last of Reyeb, in what turns out to be a risky decision by Audiard to inject a novel new tone that is fraught with difficulties for audiences.

The confusion of the screenplay is compounded by its lack of economy; at almost two and a half hours, A Prophet is too long to sustain our unequivocal interest.

In 2001 Jacques Audiard made a terrific thriller starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos with an understated black comedic tone called Read My Lips. It shows his natural storytelling talent (and his humour) far better.

Review by Louise Keller:
'The idea is to leave here a little smarter,' an inmate tells Tahar Rahim's newly arrived prisoner Malik El Djebena at the deadly establishment where survival is a privilege, not a given. Jacques Audiard's gritty film about prison life, corruption, discrimination, survival skills and ambition is tense, violent and full of surprises as Malik's steep learning curve includes much more than learning to read and write. Winner of the Cannes 2009 Grand Jury Prize, Audiard's film makes no moral judgments as Malik juggles his conscience and turns every card into a trump, albeit not always cleanly.

Read My Lips is my all-time favourite Audiard film with its unique concept and wonderful performances from Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos. A Prophet has less general appeal due to the intense and violent nature of the subject matter in a high security prison. I found it difficult to keep abreast of all the characters and where they fit into the grand plan. The long running time too, may detract for some, although for those willing to walk through those prison doors with Malik and experience his 'initiation' involving Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab inmate about to testify in a trial, will find it a gripping experience.

Rahim's performance as the rookie 19 year old prisoner who finds himself caught up in issues and crimes far beyond his imagination, is outstanding. It all begins when the cronies of the silver-haired Corsican mafia elder César Luciani with clean, long nails (Niels Arestrup, superb) forcibly take Malik's white sneakers. The price Malik has to pay for the protection he needs, haunts him; it is as though a ghost becomes a friendly ear and an extension of himself. Then as he becomes César's 'eyes and ears', life becomes even more complicated as his relationships with the opportunist Arab Ryad (Adel Bencherif), Jordi the hash-loving gypsy (Reda Kateb), the distinctive Arab leader Bahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi) and the Corsican mafia head Sampierro (Pierre Leccia) force his life that is balancing in the midst of a cultural impasse, to zig-zag in all directions.

Every performance counts and the intensity of the film's mood leaves an imprint that is far more defined than some of the plot details, which at times confuse.

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 2

A PROPHET (MA)
(France, 2009)

Un Prophète

CAST: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Eda Kateb, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bekhti, Pierre Leccia, Foued Nassah, Slimane Dazi

PRODUCER: Lauranne Bourachot, Martine Cassenelli, Marco Cherqui

DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard

SCRIPT: Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard (original by Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Stephane Fontaine

EDITOR: Juliette Welfling

MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Michel Berthelemy

RUNNING TIME: 149 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 11, 2010






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