Review by Gordon Justesen
Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherit, Reda Kateb
Director: Jacques Audiard
Audio: French DTS HD 5.1 (with English Subtitles)
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 155 Minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2010
“I work for no one. I work for myself.”
When a film is able to transcend not one, but two different film genres in the same piece, you know you're experiencing filmmaking at its highest powers. It's a rare feat that French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has accomplished with A Prophet, one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Both this and fellow nominee The White Ribbon illustrate perfectly a level of filmmaking that Hollywood studios were more accepting of, in addition to the fact that I have spent far too much time away from the Foreign film scene.
All gangster sagas tend to get compared to The Godfather, a rule that's pretty much been in effect since 1972. And while I tend to stray far from movie review cliches, I'm here to tell you that Audiard's film is indeed equal Coppola's beloved crime saga. It's not an imitator in any way, shape or form, but it's the first film to tell the story of a young man's unexpected rise into the criminal underworld with the same potent effect since The Godfather.
The other genre Audiard transcends in addition to the gangster saga is the prison based movie. This may be the first film I've seen to deliver an unflinching view of a prison setting. As much as I love The Shawshank Redemption, this film really does a most superior job of portraying prison life in an non romanticizing way, as well as the brutal violence that exists inside it...and just with one scene.
Audiard wastes no time in placing the audience right smack in the prison setting in the opening scene, thus drawing us into the story instantly. We are introduced to Malik El Djebana (Tahar Rahim), a nineteen year old Frenchman of Arab descent, as he is brought into prison to begin a six year term. His reason for being there is never explained, but all we know of him is that he is a lost soul, is illiterate and gives the appearance of a weakling.
In no time at all, though, Malik finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict between the Arabs and Corsicans. Malik is a descendant of both, but in prison you're either with one gang or the other. He soon falls into the clutches of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the leader of the Corsican gang who immediately instructs Malik to carry out the killing of an Arab inmate who is about to testify against the Corsican mafia.
In refusing, Cesar will simply have Malik killed. But if he goes through with it, he will receive instant protection from the Corsican gang. As it turns out, the man Cesar wants killed has a bit of an intimate interest in Malik, which he uses in order to get close to him and carry out the job.
The moment when Malik carries out his first killing and the scenes leading up to it, where he is practicing how it will go down, is nothing short of mind-blowing. And when we see the way in which Malik performs the killing, you realize just how much of a walk in the park Michael Corleone's first act of violence was by comparison. It goes without saying that this is by far one of the most graphically brutal killings you will ever see in a single film.
Once that's done, Malik gets exactly what was promised. Cesar not only provides him protection, but with additional jobs not just inside the prison, but outside it as well when he is allowed a few days leave every so often. Malik also takes advantage of the prison's education system, and in just a few years time he has been transformed from a weak individual to a sharp, educated and fully efficient enforcer on behalf of Cesar, and becomes a powerful figure within the prison population as a result.
Going back to the prison setting, what Audiard is a remarkable accomplishment of atmosphere. The prison is very much its own character, and his way of filming everything in a realistic way certainly helps in making the viewer feel as though he or she is among the inmates. I was reminded a lot of The Wire while watching it, because the incredible level of authenticity brought to this film and its setting is definitely equal to that of the brilliant television series (substitute prison for the drug-infested streets of Baltimore, and there you have it!).
In the lead role, newcomer Tahar Rahim is absolutely mesmerizing from beginning to end, in a role that I believe could serve as a launching pad for him in the same way The Godfather did for Al Pacino. What's even more remarkable is the fact that Rahim's performance is incredibly subtle for a role like this. Normally, you'd expect to see an over the top, Tony Montana-like portrayal of a youth's rise to the top of the criminal world, but Rahim's approach is brilliantly refreshing.
Audiard is a master filmmaker whose work I am now more eager to check out, in particular his much acclaimed The Beat That My Heart Skipped. As it stands, he has made one of the most effectively potent crime epics of all time with A Prophet. If you crave an edgy crime film and brilliant filmmaking, then you owe it to yourself to check out this one of a kind masterpiece.
Sony has crafted a remarkable looking Blu-ray presentation. While providing a striking level of image clarity throughout, the presentation still keeps in tact a perfect amount of grain needed to reflect the overall grittiness of the film. The interiors of the prison look as authentic as the setting feels, while settings outside the prison walls appear in stunning form, thus making them seem like another world. The English subtitles appear in easy-to-read form from beginning to end. If you're going to see this film, make sure it's on Blu-ray and nowhere else. That's how tremendous the quality is.
The DTS HD mix is astounding in the way it brings the prison setting to vivid life. The very first thing we hear, even before the first frame appears, is the sound of prison doors slamming in the background, which definitely delivers an impact. The film also features a fantastic soundtrack of all English songs, including what may be the single best version of “Mack the Knife” I've ever heard in my life, and they all heard in fantastic form! The outbursts of violence definitely provide the presentation highlights, most notably a shootout that takes place inside a van.
This Blu-ray includes a subtitled commentary track with director Jacques Audiard, actor Tahar Rahim and co-writer Thomas Bidegain, as well as ten minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, Rehearsal Footage and Screen Tests. We also get a Theatrical Trailer as well as Bonus Previews of additional Sony releases including The White Ribbon.
A Prophet is a masterpiece of both the crime epic genre as well as all around filmmaking. You won't find a more realistic prison based film nor a more engrossing tale of a youth's rise to criminal power than this astounding piece from Jacques Audiard. The Blu-ray is extremely recommended!