Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (Un Prophète) is filmmaking at point-blank range, a stark, fierce criminal portrait of tremendous power. There's a reckless immediacy to it--it draws us in immediately, no backstory, no bullshit. We meet Malik El Djebana, he's nineteen years old, he's going into prison for six years, boom. Go.
In prison, Malik (Tahar Rahim) is lost, confused, and perceived (correctly) as weak. He is also a man caught between worlds--he is part Arab and part Corsican, and in this prison, you are one or the other. He finds himself in the sights of a group of Corsicans, led by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who offer him protection in exchange for work performed. His first job is the cold-blooded murder of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab, about to testify against the Corsican mafia; Reyeb has a sexual interest in Malik, who is instructed to use this "in" to slit his throat.
The violence, when it comes, in shocking in its graphic brutality. But it also draws us in deeper, as the violence in great crime cinema does. Malik is a bit of a blank slate (he is illiterate and withdrawn), but he takes to the work that César gives him, and grows proud of the trust the powerful man has placed in him; meanwhile, Malik takes prison courses, learning to read and write, and befriends Ryad (Adel Bencherif), an Arab prisoner whose intelligence and resourcefulness inspires him.
As Malik becomes a more proficient lawbreaker, working the system from both inside and outside the prison walls, A Prophet becomes something of a crime procedural, an examination of precisely how these things are done--and it feels like a film that knows what it's talking about, from the inside out. Over the film's expansive 149-minute running time, Malik morphs from loner to kingpin, from clueless to ruthless. Rahim's is a deceptively opaque performance; you don't see him doing a lot of "acting," but as the story progresses and the character gets smarter, you do see him thinking. This culminates in a phenomenal moment where you literally see his face go white, and in that moment, I realized that his work here is borne of the same cloth as Casey Affleck's stunningly subtle turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's got that same fragility, and the same reserve of forcefulness. Arestrup's work as César is something of a counterweight--he's a frightening figure who turns on a dime, but Arestrup gives us flashes of the complexity underneath his brittle shell.
Audiard, a director previously unknown to me (I didn't catch his previous import, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), shows tremendous skill and control; the picture has a grimy, off-the-cuff feel, and with its visceral action, well-chosen music, and inventive use of on-screen text, the film forms into a hybrid of the fierce energy of City of God and the unblinking pragmatism of Gomorrah. Audiard favors a low-down, pulpy aesthetic, but he has moments of gritty lyricism, like Malik's silent regard of the beach in a moment of potential crisis.
By the time A Prophet (Un Prophète) reaches its stunningly executed climax, there is little doubt that Audiard is a filmmaker of force and skill. This is a brooding, assured picture, and if the labyrinthine plotline detracts (it can occasionally get bogged down in a flurry of names and relationships), the execution never wavers. It's an outstanding film.