Thursday, 10 November 2016

Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" – Breakin' the law, breakin' the law

Here in the UK, most kids go to free state schools but there are also private schools with fees.  The fees are about 20,000 GBP a year, or 72 percent of the average UK salary of 27,600 GBP – so it's not for everyone.  Apart from keeping their young charges away from the riffraff, the private schools claim to help the pupils achieve their aspirations and realize their potential.  They hire inspirational teachers, or at least teachers who pretend to give a damn about the needs of the kids.  I mention this because in Jacques Audiard's film A Prophet, a similar development happens to the main character, Malik (Tahar Rahim), an Arab serving a six-year sentence in a tough French jail.


Rather than an inspirational teacher, Malik is guided by the ghost of Ryad (Adel Bencherif), a prisoner who Malik is forced to kill early in the film by a Corsican gang boss, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup).  Ryad has offered Malik drugs in exchange for sex.  When Malik goes to his cell, concealing a razorblade in his mouth, Ryad talks gently to Malik about books and learning to read in order to calm him down.  This is unendurable to the nervous Malik, who'd hoped to attack Ryan immediately, so the murder doesn't go as planned and ends up in a messy fight.

While it's conceivable that Ryad would talk kindly to Malik ahead of a cosy sexual encounter, it's harder to understand why his ghost continues in the same vein after Ryad has murdered him.  Nevertheless, that is what the ghost does.  What's more, the ghost is a kind of angel and Malik turns out to be a sort of prophet in the Muhammad mould.  You might also wonder why Muhammad and an angel would be mentoring and developing the aspirations of a drugs boss, which Malik gradually turns into over the course of the film, inevitably eclipsing the influence of Cesar along the way.  But hey, you've just got to roll with this stuff if you stick with the film.

Given that poor prisoners are unlikely to end up in privately education, the only chance for the realisation of their aspirations is likely to be the appearance of a guardian angel.  I suspect this is a rare event in real life, which doubtless explains the lamentable state of personal development among modern-day prisoners.  But shy, gauche Malik makes the most of his good luck and becomes a proper boss, playing the various criminal gangs against each other both inside and outside the jail.

Review continues below...

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Tahar Rahim plays Malik beautifully.  When the other characters point out his limitations, he brushes them away with little shrugs and shakes of his head, as though he's already moved on to the next thing.  The prisoners are superbly cast and really look the part – I suspect many are not formal actors,  It's a long film but the quality keeps up throughout.  For example, about three-quarters through, when the script could have started to flag, suddenly there are two sweetheart touches from the scriptwriters.  First, Malik dresses in a suit and tie and his crim friend tells him he looks just like a lawyer – a lovely piece of dialogue since lawyers are probably the only people he's encountered who wear suits and ties.  Then shortly afterwards, Malik goes through airport security for the first time – he has never flown before.  A guard pats him down, and at the end Malik subserviently sticks out his tongue, just as he's used to doing during the searches when he comes in and out of prison.

Another thing that's done well is the standard thriller device of a murder plan that goes wrong.  There's the attack on Ryad at the beginning, and later Malik and his friend attack a rival gang boss in his armoured car.  But the car doesn't stop in the way it usually does and the pair have to think on their feet to get the job done.  In each case, seeing how Malik reacts to the stress of the unexpected events leads to a memorable scene that brings out his character and also develops the plot in a skilful way.

Personal Score: 8/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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