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A Prophet (2009)

September 21, 2010

9/10 Fresh Fish

Remind me again how The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Foreign Film last year?

A Prophet is the story of an Arab teen with no family or friends who finds himself shacking up in a French prison with only the clothes on his back after beating up a cop for no real reason at all. Turns out, French prisons aren’t anywhere near as fun as the commercials make them out to be and before long the kid is given a friendly proposition by the local mafia ring: murder an inmate before he can testify at a trial or we kill you.

Good times.

So I’ve never seen anything by the guy and apparently this is the spiritual successor to his last movie, The Beat My Heart Skipped, but it looks like I should start getting familiar with director Jacques Audiard because he’s put together one mean bastard here.

Man, let’s just start with the first half-hour because the first half-hour is absolutely insane and effing amazing. The thing Audiard does best from the get-go is that he puts us on the same level as our underage inmate of the hour, Malik El Djebena. The kid’s a nobody who seems to know as much about himself as we do, so by the time his whole life comes to a skidding halt roughly five minutes after establishing himself as newest shank-worthy loner on the prison yard, it’s hard not to sympathize with him. And I like that, because Audiard could have given him a backstory, could have at least given him some unique qualities outside of the blood welts on his face, but the fact that he’s about as ordinary, weak and unprepared for the life he’s been thrust into as the rest of us not only helps to put us on his level and in turn makes him stand out that much more from all the other cold-blooded mofos around him. He’s not a gangster, he’s not a killer, he’s a blank slate who’s doing his best not to shit his knickers, and this right here, this is his backstory and we’re along to see all the highs and lows of his coming-of-age behind bars.

So there’s that aspect which is established right off the bat, but the big reason I’m still ranting about this first half-hour is there’s really not a minute throughout the whole damn thing where your heart isn’t lodged in your throat. It didn’t surprise me in the least when one of my friends told me that she turned this off almost as soon as it started, because this is gritty like you wouldn’t believe and couldn’t be more intense if it were set on a bus going 50. Just watching El Djebena trying time and time again to weasel his way out of this epically unfortunate catch-22 he’s caught in the middle of, only to find himself trying to breathe his way out of a plastic bag that the mafia’s holding over his face as a friendly reminder of who he’s trying to fuck over.

Folks, the first Act here is nuts, it’s brutal to the point of frightening, but it is a thing of beauty. If only for the first Act, this movie gets an easy 9, and even though the remaining two-thirds don’t quite keep up the same tempo, watching El Djebena make a name for himself like the Arabic version of Henry Hill is more than enough to keep you absorbed over the next five years of his sentence.

And the acting is no joke, too. Newcomer Tahar Rahim is spot-on as El Djebena and it’s something else watching him go from innocent shell of an inmate to right-hand fingerman. He doesn’t have to do a whole lot to pull it off, but he does bring a good deal of personality to the role and does well to keep reminding us that this is essentially a kid doing the work of a cold-blooded killer. But the scene-stealer of the show is Niels Arestrup as prison mafia kingpin, Cesar Luciani. The thing about Arestrup is that he looks like the homeless version of my grandpa, nor is he the guy you’d think would be running shit in the big house, but when this guy speaks, he makes Don Corleone look like Smeagol. Forget about how physically unintimidating he is, when this guy reminds you that he can have you killed six ways from Sunday by putting you in a headlock and digging your eye out with the edge of  spoon, you listen to what he has to say and you gladly serve as his bitch. The dude is a maniac, he can put the fear of God into people like no other, and he is just wild to watch.

Like a natural mix between Goodfellas and Midnight Express, A Prophet might not be the most relaxing way to spend two hours, but it is awesome and it is far and away one of the more memorable gangster movies to come out in recent years that Scorsese hasn’t been responsible for. The whole thing from the visuals to the characters to the dialogue to the plot stand as a stark reminder that no one wants to end up in prison, that it’s not a place to make friends over the notion of hope, but rather a hell you survive that follows you after you leave. Like I said, good times.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 5:35 pm

    ” Turns out, French prisons aren’t anywhere near as fun as the commercials make them out to be…”

    Nearly pissed myself laughing at that one. Great review, man!

  2. September 21, 2010 8:04 pm

    I still love this movie with a passion! It’s still in my top 20 of all time, it is truly amazing. I’m glad you gave it a 9, which I know is high for you! So great review, for a great movie!

    • September 22, 2010 10:09 am

      haha. thanks, man. read your review of Secret in Their Eyes again and glad to see you write this comment, thought I’d trounced on sacred ground there for a second.

  3. September 21, 2010 9:48 pm

    Good review, dude. Yeah, the razor-in-mouth scene in the beginning, along with the storming-the-van-while-dual-wielding-pistols scene near the end were two of the most intense moments I’ve experienced at the theater all year. Gave this puppy an A- myself and will more than likely end up in my end of the year top ten.

    • September 22, 2010 10:12 am

      The storming of the van was effing wild, but there’s really no comparing to the razor-in-the-mouth scene. That was fucking insane and the whole 30-minute buildup before it with him trying to psyche himself and find ways to get out of it (only to have him nearly killed by the mafia each time) made it that much better. An easy Top Ten choice.

  4. September 22, 2010 8:05 am

    Saw the trailer for this at the beginning of a film I was watching last night. It intrigued me then. Now I really must check it out.

    • September 22, 2010 10:08 am

      Go for it, man. Really good stuff. Good trailer too if I remember correctly.

  5. September 22, 2010 6:16 pm

    sweet write-up, Aiden. Has been on my TV stand for days now, but I will certainly watch tonight….Thanks for the kick in the ass to finally put it in!

  6. bill permalink
    June 24, 2012 9:29 pm

    Watched this last night on SBS Australia. It just grabbed and enthralled me for 2 hours. Your review nails it.

    • June 25, 2012 9:33 am

      Thanks! Hell of a movie, especially the first half-hour. Story of my life, too.

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