Is A Prophet the great masterpiece it’s being painted as? I’m going to say, no, it isn’t. That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s good. It’s very good, and it sometimes attains greatness—mostly within the confines of its genre—but it can’t maintain its greatness. For me, A Prophet is a victim of a combination of excessive length and critical hyperbole. The length is the fault of filmmaker Jacques Audiard, but the hyperbole isn’t something that can be blamed on either the filmmaker or the film. However, it does serve, I’m afraid, to set the bar at a higher level than the film is capable of reaching. When all is said and done, A Prophet is a prison/gangster picture—an unusually intelligent and sometimes rather peculiar one, but a prison/gangster picture all the same.
A Prophet follows the fortunes of a French-born Arab, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), who, at 19, lands in prison for six years for a crime that is never made entirely clear. What does come across is that six years is an awfully long stretch for the vague reference of assaulting a policeman.
Malik is immediately subjected to the expected humiliation of the entry process and the assaults of more hardened inmates. Things change, however, when Corsican crime boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) needs someone inside the Muslim block to assassinate an inconvenient witness, Reyeb (HichemYacoubi), before he can testify. The Corsican godfather makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse—if he wants to live. This is what leads to the film’s most notoriously violent sequence: The murder of Reyeb and the scenes leading up to it—including Malik practicing how to carry a concealed double-edged razor blade in his mouth—are intense and disturbing.
The intensity is, I think, less due to the bloody violence (though it’s there) than to the fact that Reyeb—despite the fact that the tryst he’s arranged with Malik is to trade sex for hashish—is kind, concerned, pleasant and even caring in his dealings with Malik. This makes the act even harder for Malik, who resents Reyeb for being nice to him. In killing Reyeb not only does Malik turn himself into someone else by the act, but he’s also killing someone who is kind to him at the command of one who treats him with contempt. It is not surprising—though it’s a little startling at first—that Reyeb’s ghost provides Malik with a rather pleasant companion in several scenes afterwards.
The striking thing about the violence in A Prophet is that at its extreme, it’s limited to the murder of Reyeb and one other scene—an execution—toward the end. The first is brutal in its sheer clumsiness and emotional intensity. The later scene is a much more stylized set-piece affair. It results in Malik turning over the dirty work to one of his supposed superiors. What is remarkable is that both scenes—each born of desperation in their own way—seem less cold and cruel than the simple punch to the stomach that the now-powerful Malik orders inflicted by one of his men near the end.
This is a film of great power. But A Prophet is also a film that outstays its welcome in far too many instances, and one that trips over its own feet in its myriad developments and duplicities. Its ending—which I’ve seen read in two completely opposed ways—has in my view a whiff of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) about it, but lacks the drive and sense of being a single piece that marks the Kubrick film. Still, at its best, A Prophet is everything that’s been claimed. Be advised, it is unlikely the film will stay on the big screen a second week. Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.