A Prophet – Do believe the hype

A Prophet is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse 29 January 2010

Will Ghosh is happy to announce the arrival of the decade’s first great film

A Prophet – 2hr 30 mins, 18

5/5

It’s a shame that hype, like a search engine, tends to work through keywords. A Prophet, which has, in some quarters, been described as the first great film of the decade (hype indeed) will, by those who haven’t seen it, probably be known purely as ‘Prison’ ‘Gangster’ or just ‘Guy Film’.

It’s easy to see how these simplifications have come about. It is, of course, set in prison, about characters who are, among other things, gangsters, and it is undoubtedly not appropriate for a date (although probably more appropriate than The Road).

But rather than being a perfect exposition of, say, the gangster genre, what makes A Prophet remarkable is its insistence on those ‘other things’, those various and interlinked concerns which take the characters beyond merely being prisoners or gangsters.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a semi-literate minor criminal who, having spent his childhood in a young offenders institute, is transferred, aged nineteen, to an adult prison. Without friends or protection, the film hinges on the decision he will make once inside.

From an Arabic family, but not a Muslim (this fact is given great prominence), he must choose whether to throw in his lot with the Muslim prisoners or with the Corsicans, who (initially) control the prison through their de-facto leader Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup).

Although Malik’s initial choice is forced upon him, and he becomes the dogsbody of the Luciani set, the balance of power gradually shifts in the prison as many of the Corsican inmates are transferred to prisons on Corsica itself.  Malik must adjust his allegiances accordingly.

It is a mark of the enormous confidence of the filmmaker that A Prophet refuses to limit itself to any one theme or idea. It has things to say about guilt, education, freedom, sexuality, friendship, and even family. In the hands of a less able director, it would descend into a horrible confusion of half-baked concepts and unconnected ideas.

Audiard, however, allows the film to be both long and inconclusive; there are a thousand loose ends and few ties, giving the film the fragmentary, unfinished feel of life itself, constantly under pressure from a variety of opposing yet related preoccupations. Nothing feels unnecessarily spliced in, every scene has hints of many others behind it, unseen.

 The confidence of the film is also remarkable in the range of its emotional register. Although it is predominantly tense and often bleak there are moments of genuine humour (of the strictly black variety – there is a particularly funny sequence where Malik, for the first time, has to take a plane) and there are even passages which seem, perversely, upbeat.

The use of music is a good example of this: one montage in particular, which manages to be positively chirpy, quite simply shouldn’t work, and yet does. Audiard recognises that his characters, like his audience, must have moments of reprieve, even of optimism. This plurality of emotion works well with the enormous scope of the film’s subject matter.

The film’s most enduring and overarching theme, however, is the idea of belonging. The Corsicans see Malik as an Arab (they do not differentiate between Arab and Muslim ), the Muslims think of him as Corsican. Malik insists that he is his own man, working for himself, but this is at best true in the sense that he chooses who he works for and often he is denied even this luxury.

Like every aspect of the film, this sense of insecurity and even self-delusion is perfectly realised by a director and cast in breathtaking form. Perhaps it is histrionic and premature to see this film, already, as landmark in the topography of cinema in this decade, but like all great films A Prophet transcends its generic boundaries, and cursory glances or keyword definitions, are not appropriate; it demands undivided attention.

A Prophet is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse