Friday, August 29, 2014

A Prophet (2008)

Director: Jacque Audiard

Now this is a little more of what I was hoping for from Gomorrah a few weeks ago.

A Prophet tells the story of a young Arab, Tarik, who gets a 6-year prison sentence in France for refusing to rat out a few other criminals. During those six years, he goes from terrified and abused kid to savvy, educated master criminal.

A young Malik, preparing himself to take a life in order
to save his own. This is just the first of many steps he
takes along an ever-darker road towards first his survival,
and then his dominance.
The story of Malik is completely gripping and uniquely tragic. One could look at it as a much more masterful, thoughtful, realistic, and far less sensational version of Brain de Palma's Scarface. Malik goes into prison as a man on his own: no friends or family to speak of, and no connections to anyone in the criminal world. He is a quiet, reserved young man who merely wants to serve his time and avoid trouble. Of course, prison rarely affords people such luxury. Once the powerful Corsican mob see Malik as a pawn they can use to further their own ends, a cycle begins that completely transforms him in every way.

The movie offers all of the tension that you might expect or hope for from such a story. Malik fights for his life at several turns, avoiding death at the hands of the Muslim and Corsican inmates, none of whom ever fully accepts him into their tightly-cloistered groups. He has to rely on his own observations, cunning, and intellect. This in itself is engaging enough, given how precariously close to death he teeters at several junctures. Some of the life-or-death tension is built slowly and insidiously, as when Malik resignedly marches towards having to assassinate another inmate or be killed himself. Others stem from the constant derision poured on him by the Corsican mobsters who hold Malik's fate in their petty hands.

Malik, after several years in prison, talking with the
Corsican mobster who he initially must obey, but
gradually seeks to overcome. 
As severe as all of this sounds, the movie is not without humor. Granted, it's nothing quite so overt as the interactions you see in The Shawshank Redemption, with the ever-comforting Morgan Freeman there to lighten the mood when necessary, but A Prophet provides earthier, quieter moments of levity. Whether it's Malik getting a hold of porno movies, or his playful talks with the lone friend he makes in prison, there is just enough to lighten up an otherwise extremely intense story.

I can't recommend this movie highly enough to anyone who likes crime and/or prison movies. It may be a little grittier than the most popular examples of the genre, but it's a brilliant story told by expert filmmakers.