FILM: A Prophet (Un Prophète)
If you like those serious, muscular gangster films of the seventies, films like ‘The Godfather’and ‘Mean Streets’, you’ll love ‘A Prophet’. It’s one of the best gangster films in years – less pompous than ‘Heat’, more honest than ‘American Gangster’, in a different league to British efforts like ‘Layer Cake’. If it doesn’t quite transcend its genre in the way that, say, ‘Pulp Fiction’ did, then that’s not a criticism – it has lots of layers, lots of interesting, subversive things to say about race, crime, youth, prison, and French society. It just makes sure that all these interesting layers never get in the way of the meaty storytelling of an epic gangster film.
The film’s antihero is Malik, an illiterate young Arab man, going to adult prison for the first time after many stretches in juvenile detention. Frightened and friendless, he gets picked on by a powerful group of Corsican gangsters, led by the seedy, vicious Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) to carry out the murder of Reyeb, a North African criminal in transit to a trial that will implicate other members of the Corsican Mafia. Malik is stuck – if he doesn’t kill Reyeb, the Corsicans will kill him, and too many prison guards are on Luciani’s payroll for him to grass. This first section of the film is incredibly tense, horribly plausible, and, at times, unwatchably violent. It sets up Malik in a fascinating position – he has status with the Corsicans, but he’s not genuinely loyal, and they treat him with racist contempt. He also has an ambivalent position with the other powerful group in prison – the serious, studious Muslims.
Over the next few years behind bars, Malik learns to read, studies economics, and becomes very useful to the Corsicans. Towards the end of his short-ish sentence, he is granted leave days, and uses them to carry out dangerous errands. He also sets up a drug-running business of his own, involving the one real friend he made in prison, Ryad, who had begun to go straight. Everything leads to the moment where Luciani, losing his influence and losing his touch, gives Malik the opportunity to seize real power for himself, and whomever he chooses to share it with.
Malik, played by newcomer Thair Rahim, is edgy and a little childish, very similar to the piano-playing slum landlord played by Romain Duris in Jacques Audiard’s last film ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’. But he’s even better – more natural, more believable, more appealing, more dangerous. There are moments when you almost want to hug him – when a high-up gangster offers him the services of a prostitute in the ten minutes Malik has before heading back to prison, he refuses so he can roll up his trousers and paddle in the sea. But then you’ll remember he’s the same character who earlier in the film, was leaping at us with a razor blade clenched between his teeth.
‘A Prophet’ ends on a sharply amoral upbeat, and you wonder if it’s setting itself up for a sequel. I think it might work – the film feels a lot like ‘The Godfather part I’, epic in its own right, but with lots of potential for Malik’s story to develop. It is in the same league as Coppola’s film, and I can imagine many long afternoons spent in smoky flats, students doing ‘Prophet’ marathons.
(A version of this review appeared on the Oxford listings website, Daily Info)