There’s little to criticize in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, which easily competes with other recent prison dramas like McQueen’s Hunger and Refn’s Bronson. Each of these films turned heads, each is distinct from the other two, and each is unforgettable in its own way. But I was more inspired to comment about Hunger and Bronson, which brought new pitch to their genre even when they were homaging other films. A Prophet, conversely, leaves me dumb. It could be that Audiard has said everything that needs to be said about his movie within the text itself. Perhaps this is the problem with the supposed Perfect Film: there’s nothing much to add, in a liminal sense, to the product. A Prophet is a well-made movie with no discernable flaws. There are no problems to write about here, but no eurekas either. I’m not suggesting that A Prophet is a mediocre film; it’s not. It’s masterful and engaging and it makes us eager to see what Audiard will do next—more so than the routine Read My Lips ever did. Its (anti)hero is memorable and its situations believably tactile. It strikes us immediately as Something Meaningful because Audiard plays all the right sorts of cards and aims delightfully high. But it’s hindered in spots by its stale building blocks, which obstructed my view of its strengths.
A Prophet has a familiar face: it’s a coming-of-thug tale that frames itself like a prison drama but pans out like a gangster flick. Tahar Rahim bears the weight of the movie on his bony shoulders as Malik, a 19-year-old delinquent sent to adult prison for the first time. Malik faces six years, but his past in various juvenile institutions has prepared him for the brutalities of gen-pop; despite his small size and seeming lack of charisma, he plans to survive his term. He knows not to back down when challenged and he knows how to throw a punch. His rookie status only really endangers him when he catches the eye of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who runs the Corsican gang (which in turn runs the prison sub rosa). Luciani needs an Arab unknown to infiltrate the Muslim gang and assassinate their leader (Hichem Yacoubi). He gives Malik two choices: kill the rival or be killed. It’s a situation that forces Malik to hold down his gorge and train up his native resourcefulness—a resourcefulness that helps him beat every last terrifying odd lodged against him by birth and circumstance.
Malik is a full character and his story is timeless enough and meaty enough to almost earn its protracted runtime. His relationship with Luciani, above all, makes the film. It’s in these two characters where we find the narrative’s pulse, which is just strong enough to keep the project sentient. Rahim himself is a force onscreen, one of those rare actors who transcends his plainness and gives off unexpected spark. His performance hits the bulls-eye Audiard paints on the dreary prison walls. We can smell the urine institutional smell that Audiard suggests with his depressing set and hostile inmates, and we can feel the depth of the concrete that confines his characters. We can see the despair on their faces which belies the determined heartbeats in their chests—survivors, every last one of them, and persuasively played. Watching an inmate struggle with illiteracy and bigotry immerses us in the realities of prison life, and watching him overcome these, by excruciating increments, pays off up to a point. They might have paid off better had I not reached my limit for Mafioso flicks with Gomorrah, another technically excellent but curiously unexciting film for those of us sated with that particular flavor.
So my complaints about A Prophet are nothing but subjective and bound to leave most fans of the film unconvinced. My complaints go to those typical issues and typical plot points mentioned above. Audiard tries to disguise the generic attributes of his movie by tossing jaunty chapter headings on the screen, by unnerving us with a blowjob, a razor, and a lot of blood, and by presenting us with a Muslim Christ figure. And here’s where Audiard lost his hold on me: not another goddamned Christ figure. A thousand years of Western literature has beaten that allusion to mash—it caused me to chuck Vernon God Little at a wall and curse the Booker committee that tried to convince me DBC Pierre was the shit. The sooner artists realize that most of us are done with that facile and increasingly irrelevant overlay, the better. It doesn’t matter how cunningly Audiard plays with the trope, or how subtly—we get it. It’s right there in the movie’s title, which suggests, with a simple but deliberate article, the Isa of Islam rather than the Christian or Muslim One-and-Only. Audiard’s Jesus is oppressed by Corsicans (who stand in for Romans), spends forty days and forty nights in the desert of solitary confinement, performs miracles in the eyes of others, gets the stink-eye from his own people, and shows us his forlorn ‘crucified’ body every time he stretches out his arms for a cavity search. He even has doings with a prostitute, feeds a party with miraculous venison rather than fishes, and winds up with an unlikely number of followers. Viewers unfazed by the cliché or even impressed with Audiard’s smug little twist on it won’t be dissuaded by my editorial “who cares?” and my itchy red pen. But there’s nothing audacious here. It’s just, rather, more of the same.
I’ve written elsewhere about our privileging of originality as a measure of artistic quality; that measure is only as old as the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century, a value linked with the rise of the Romantic individual who wouldn’t compromise with conformity. And that measure is an arbitrary one. Shakespeare felt no anxiety about turning the story of Amleth into Hamlet, and, even now, most of us are comforted by favorite book or movie genres, whose products attract us because of their familiarity. Genre, homage, and intertextuality are all indispensable tools of story-telling. I would never fault A Prophet for its sameness per se, no matter how tired I am, personally, of its formula. I fault it for trying to transcend formulaic story with formulaic metaphor while posing as something more inventive than it really is. It’s strong and healthy, but its breath’s a little stale—its interiority exhausted. I’ve only seen Read My Lips and A Prophet, but the impression I have so far of Audiard is of a technically gifted director who has a way with actors, but who doesn’t have much to add to the discourse. He needs others to do the heavy thinking, but what he produces with their input is still better than most movies and strong enough to compete with the elite. If I don’t think A Prophet quite deserved Cannes’ Grand Prix, I can understand how it ran away with the award. Like I said, the man knows how to play the right cards, and when you’ve got the Messiah up your sleeve, you’ll get the praise almost by default. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online, on May 4, 2010.)