Movie Review: A Prophet

Feb. 27 2010, Published 4:53 a.m. ET

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Exquisitely etched and viscerally powerful, A Prophet (Un Prophet) is one of the best films of the year so far. With spare beauty and deft storytelling, it's also sure to launch a serious career for its sexy young star, Tahar Rahim.

The film, which arrives in limited release Friday, begins with the start of a six-year jail sentence for Malik El Djebena (Rahim), a 19-year-old, illiterate petty thief in France. With a boyish face, few fighting skills and no friends to speak of, the prison’s Corsican gang leaders quickly target him to carry out a terrifying task, and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t comply. In exchange, they make him one of their own, and he quickly moves up the ranks of their increasingly complex and dangerous operations.

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A Prophet’s power stems largely from its economy of dialogue, fantastic cinematography and astonishing performances. But what keeps it a taut, quickly moving story (besides Rahim’s delectable looks) is also the non-stop brutality and bursts of action in what’s fundamentally a gangster story set in a bleak prison. Uneducated and unsophisticated, Malik is a young man of few words, but his inner turmoil and anguish are unmistakable as he’s forced to do and see unspeakable things. The beauty of his character and its rendering is not only his awakening and growth as a man, but also the way that director Jacques Audiard reveals the interior of Malik’s mind.

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While much of the A Prophet is gritty, contained in cinder-block cells and grim hallways, the subtle arrival of Malik’s conscience, and the undercurrent of his prescience throughout, bring much-needed moments of relief from the movie’s darker elements. As Audiard delicately draws out Malik’s fears, we see not only what haunts him, but also his emerging sense of self. It’s that tenuous connection to hope -- not to mention a little gallows humor in the dank jail -- that tethers both the character and the film to the outer world, beyond the confines of the prison.

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The film, which is nominated for an Oscar and has been cleaning up on the awards circuit internationally, has been compared to staple American movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. But in addition to its undeniably European sensibility, its firm grounding in French culture seeps through the heavy prison-yard politics of race, class and religion. A Prophet’s drama doesn’t hinge on its portrayal of ethnic conflict, but some of the country’s persistent tensions between immigrant groups plays out in bloody little tussles in the jail yard and cringe-worthy injustices, like having shoes stolen off Malik’s feet on a cold day.

With its limited, coastal release, A Prophet, isn’t likely to reach a majority of Stateside film-goers in the theater. But those who are willing to say “maid oui!” to two hours of French drama will find hidden gem among next month’s Academy contenders, not to mention an emerging star who’s poised to break hearts in theaters worldwide.

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