Filmmakers, publicists and early reviewers have all made the point that Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (Un prophete), France’s nominee for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, is an anti-“Scarface,” an anti-“Godfather.” What it is, mostly, is a self-made creature, much like its compelling main character.
Audiard is a painstaking filmmaker, with only five features as director to his credit at the age of 57. While his father, Michel, was a successful screenwriter, Audiard began his career as an editor. That experience is apparent in his movies, including 1996’s “A Self-Made Hero,” 2001’s “Read My Lips” and 2004’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.” “Self-Made” has an unreliable narrator as its central character; “Read My Lips” is an uncommonly uneasy, witty Hitchcock-Chabrol-style thriller that turns on what the characters hear; and “Beat,” a remake of James Toback’s fierce testosterone opera, “Fingers,” brings grace to the crude shape of a gangster film. Audiard’s notions in how to depict his characters, their surroundings and their fated choices all sing with a film editor’s ruthless insistence on speed and specificity.
Even at 150 minutes, “A Prophet” sails, coursing across four years of unsentimental education of Malik El Djebena (Tahir Rahim), an illiterate French-Arab who learns in prison the ways of the outside world, not limited to languages, finances, ethnic rivalries and grandiose revenge. He learns from Corsican chieftain Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup, the father in “The Beat My Heart Skipped”) craft and cruelty: almost immediately Malik is seized upon as the only one who could kill another Arab who is imprisoned for only ten days while awaiting trial. Gain his trust, kill him, you’re made, Malik is told. Say no, you’re dead. Hasty brutality follows. Between the walls, a world is made. Malik is watchful, fearful, yet eager, and Rahim’s performance avoids the charisma-driven cliché of most gangster films. He keeps his head down, his eyes down, until confidence is earned, until it will be rewarded. There is a scene in a van with gunfire that is Audiard’s bravura moment for Malik to exhibit delirium, and it’s majestic. (And deafening.) In between, Malik has visions, many involving the man he murders. Their spooky elegance is not only haunting, yet touching. (One in particular echoes a similar fiery vision of the dead in Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”)
One mark of an extraordinary director is not only a willingness, but also knowingness, about the use of slackness, or slightly confusing passages, to better shape a movie overall. A simple example would be the passages of dialogue in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” that almost tempt you to wish sudden flurries of pecks and caws upon the human lovebirds fumbling away in the foreground. A little apocalypse would do them good. Once Malik is allowed day passes, he mixes his own business with that of the Corsican, rallying allies, dotting I’s, crossing foes. The movie is divided into chapter headings, but they’re matters of mood rather than plot; Audiard is willing to let the facts of the criminal alliances and the facts of their conspiracies fall where they may. Sensations come furiously: after a run of confusing exposition, amazing setpieces—lyrical, furious—drive the worry away. You’re watching a movie by a confident director, you won’t have to write a report afterwards. Audiard is also audacious at music cues, one of which is so powerfully mournful, mocking and majestic, it would be a crime to give away. Still, the place he finds for the jangled percussion of Sigur Rós’ “Gobbledigook” is unexpected yet utterly apt. (The score is by the prolific, eclectic Alexandre Desplat, Oscar-nominated for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”)
In one of Audiard’s many entertaining interviews, in which journalists are seldom remiss in noting the shaven-headed writer-director’s sporting of a porkpie and other natty garb, he said that the banality and ambiguity of the title appealed to him. He’d wanted to name it after a favored Bob Dylan song, “You’re gonna have t’ serve somebody,” but he confessed that it wouldn’t translate very well into French. Audiard serves his characters with sly wit and compassion toward them, even at their most base, at their weakest. (The fate of the Corsican is elemental, telegraphed as an inevitable, Shakespeare-like destiny.)
The ending is staggering; sufficiently staggering that I’ve read a few reviews where the writer thinks they have given away the ending—a crime!—but turn out not to have understood at all what’s happening in front of their eyes. They missed a simple flick of a finger in long shot that lands like a pile of bricks, but a pile of bricks that lands whole, a construction, an edifice, the first building of a new world order.
“A Prophet” opens Friday at Landmark Century and Century Evanston Cine Arts.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.