… is the new film by Jacques Audiard, the French director who made The Beat That My Heart Skipped a few years ago.
A Prophet is similar in some ways (brooding, male protagonist, intense, graphic violence, the depiction of a grim world punctuated by brief moments of beauty) but this time it’s the story of a young Frenchman of Arab origin who catches a six-year jail term at the age of 19.
That’s not to say it’s trying to make any political statement about France’s racial make-up in the same way that, say, La Haine did. (There’s hardly any mention of his crime, save for a snide reference by the prison governor to ‘attacking cops’.) It’s cinema verité first and foremost; an unrepenting, unsentimental look at life on the wrong side of the law.
Malik (played with sullen brilliance by Tahar Rahim) is unconnected when he’s locked up. To gain protection he must kill another inmate for the prison’s dominant gangster Luciani (played with great malevolence by Niels Arestup, who was the father in Beat). From here on he gradually builds his knowledge, cunning and respect, running errands for Luciani while on day release.
As you’d expect from Audiard, the film is masterfully shot. He strips away all cinematic conventions to place everything – the characters, setting, action – up close, at times uncomfortably so. He knows precisely how much to show and how little, so there are passages of flick-book style speed and shots that dwell lazily on a deer carcass or Malik’s scars.
What makes this essential? Maybe it’s because Hollywood forgot how to make films like this sometime in the mid-80s. If you’re looking for hard-hitting, uncompromising cinema that even comes close to passing for real life, it seems like you have to just put up with the subtitles these days.