Paul Lister’s review published on Letterboxd:
Jacques Audiard's 'A Prophet' is one of my all time favourite films. It is a dark and brutal tale of a young, illiterate man with a history of juvenile behaviour by the name of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) who is sent to prison for six years. Malik is part Corsican, part Arab in a prison where Corsican and Arab rivalry is very strong. In his six year prison stretch he goes from someone who has no identity, with no friends on the outside and none on the inside, to a man with an identity and a reputation. The film charts one of the most fantastic character progressions in modern cinema and is backed by a stunning break out performance from Rahim and a terrifying, chilling performance from Niels Arestrup as César Luciani, the influential leader of a gang of Corsican's.
It is at the beginning of the film where César quickly makes his presence known to Malik, who has no one he can rely on for protection. César uses this to force Malik to kill an Arab prisoner by the name of Reyab (Hichem Yacoubi) by intimating homosexual activities with him before slitting his throat with a concealed razor blade. Initially Malik cannot find it in him to do such a horrifying thing and tries desperately to get out of it, entirely underestimating the ruthlessness of César and his gang. Knowing that he can no longer avoid the inevitable, Malik engages with Reyab. In the films most brutal display of tension and blood letting violence, Malik's plans are almost scuppered by the blood streaming down his mouth from the concealed weapon he has. He is forced to break from the intended plan which leads to a real struggle before he eventually kills Reyab. It is a brilliant scene because of the fact that it goes so wrong. It would not ring true if Malik were to somehow kill Reyab with no problems whatsoever and it works nicely in regards to the character development he undergoes in the film. With this task complete, Malik now finds he has protection from César, he is not alone any more.
Malik also takes a keen interest in learning and working throughout his time in prison. He learns Corsican through watching César and his men talk which in turn leads César in giving him more specific and important jobs, including trips outside of the prison. The best thing about these scenes can sometimes be simple things like Malik taking a Plane for the first time and looking out of the window in awe or a moment such as pouring sand out of his shoes on return to prison after he had spent time on a beach. Along with the continued learning - including economics - we see Malik make a life for himself from prison, an environment that is so associated with a life ruined or wasted. Malik enters the prison with nothing to waste so can only progress and grow, often learning the hard way but always learning. He uses the racial make up of the prison to his advantage but also often plays the angles dangerously close to breaking point. He is seem poorly by the Arabs to begin with because he is so closely related to César but César's men hate him because he is to them nothing but a "Dirty Arab". César trusts him though, a trust which is betrayed as it means nothing to him. He uses this trust and the responsibilities that are given to him to create his own business by selling hash.
By the end of the film Malik is a completely different person than the one who entered the prison but just as much as he has changed so has the dynamic of the prison itself. At the beginning of the film there is a far greater Corsican presence in the prison, they rule the place and come down hard on Arabs. At the end of the film, partly down to Malik's actions - and betrayal of César - the make up of the prison is larger in Arab presence, leaving César to cut a lonely figure. Throughout the film Malik never visibly acts out against him but it is at this moment at the end where he no longer feels he needs to hide his opinion of him. He has the protection and backing of his people, there is nothing César can do to him any more, he is just one pitiful old Corsican by the end.
Tahar Rahim is truly phenomenal in the film, it is often hard to gauge what he is thinking but it is clear throughout the film that he is certainly very thoughtful and despite his characters lack of education he displays a real intelligence. Rahim has since gone on to be one of the best actors in European cinema appearing in such fine work such as 'Our Children' and 'The Past', he is an actor I always find myself looking out for in regards to future roles and projects. His character and performance in this film has to go down as one of the best in recent memory though but what is even more fantastic about the film is that it features not one but two performances that rank right at the top of the European cinema tree. Niels Arestrup is an actor who in roles in 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped' and 'Our Children' has a real ability to get under the skin, to be truly intimidating, controlling and just plain frightening. His performance here beats out the two films I mentioned, he is simply sensational in this film!
Jacques Audiard is also one of my favourite directors in modern cinema, through films such as 'Read My Lips', 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped' and 'Rust and Bone' Audiard has been able to make stylistically dark and often very sexy crime films. He is able to work with the leading actors in French cinema such as Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard whilst also coxing out performances from upcoming stars such as Rahim and Romain Duris. His films all have a really gritty realism to them but at the same time feature an almost dream like quality as if we are getting a sense of characters looking to break free of the confines of the stark nature of reality. Audiard also has a way of using contemporary music to increase the stylistic quality in his films, in 'A Prophet' he uses interesting cuts from Nas and Sigur Ros, which feel at odds with the film but strangely fitting at the same time although I cannot quite put my finger on why that is.
'A Prophet' remains Audiard's best work although all of his films are held in high esteem by myself. Here he uses a prison drama mixed with a gangster film to chart the growth of a man who is trapped in a place where personal growth isn't naturally associated. It is simply a great work of 21st Century cinema that demands to be seen!