I like movies that take me on an emotional journey. The central character of A Prophet is Malik, a 19-year-old petty criminal (Tahar Rahim) who’s being sent to prison. We don’t know what he’s done, or very much else about him; he’s quiet and keeps to himself. Then he is targeted by one of the prison kingpins, a tough, Corsican mobster named Cesar (played with quiet intensity by Niels Arestrup), who forces him to commit an unthinkable act. This is the turning point in his life, and it leads him to experiences he never could have planned or predicted.
What makes this more than a mere “prison movie” is the way director Jacques Audiard (who wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain) weaves so many different threads into the fabric of his story. Malik is half-Corsican and half-Arab. Without turning the film into a political tract or an ethnographic study, Audiard manages to make wry observations about French society and its underclasses, both inside and outside the walls of prison. He explores the nature of survival in a harsh, modern world where ethics and morals are often trumped for the sake of practical needs.
A Prophet is a graphically brutal film; it’s a tribute to the power, and credibility, of the story that the most extreme scenes of violence justify themselves. And once again, Audiard elevates the mundane by turning a terrifying incident into a recurring visual metaphor. I haven’t seen all five of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, but this one is certainly deserving of that honor.