A Prophet
In prison, how many packs of cigarettes does it take to get a baby?

Theatrical Release Date: 08/26/2009 (France), 03/05/2010 (USA)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci

Just getting a U.S. release is France’s contender for this Sunday’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, “A Prophet”. The story centers on 19 year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim), sentenced to six years in prison. An Arab with no initial faith, he finds himself ostracized from his ethnic group and lands himself halfway in between them and the Corsican inmates who unofficially run the prison. Forced to kill another inmate, this act begins a journey for Malik that will allow him to gain the trust of those around him in order to mold his future.

Director Jacques Audiard has packed many different behavioral and societal issues into this feature. Whether its the struggle of a basically good man against those who have been corrupted by the allure of crime, the relationship between what is essentially master and slave, or the penal system itself – each element is on display for the audience to decipher the murky moral areas for themselves.

Rahim, a relative newcomer to acting, does a remarkable job of layering his character and evolving as the film progresses. We see Malik transform from a skittish non-believer into a confident schemer who has used his time in prison to gain the knowledge to survive and even flourish. This is shown not only through the conviction in his speech or the boldness of his actions but also in subtle body language and an intensity in his eyes.

Acting as both the benefactor and foil to Malik’s development is the head of the imprisoned Corsicans, Cesar (Niels Arestrup). His connections to the underworld on the outside allow him to exert tremendous pressure on the inside and there are enough trusted thugs and corrupt prison guards around him to make sure his wishes are carried out. However, when most of the Corsicans are released or transferred to another prison, Cesar must then bring Malik closer into the fold in order to help maintain his place on the correctional throne. This sets in motion a clash of ideology as well as ethnicity and gives Malik opportunities to use his recently acquired courage, knowledge and connections.

One of the most impressive feats accomplished by Audiard is condensing so much material into 2 and a half hours. Yes, it’s a long film and there were a few times that I wondered just how long I’d been in the theater, but I was never disinterested in the events on-screen. This is such an intimately epic story, if such a collection of words could ever go together; it’s six years of Malik’s life and there are so many events that will help to transform him that cutting some scenes for time would only detract from the performance and the scope of the story itself.

The film is presented beautifully, wonderfully composed and utilizes the right mix of shadow versus light (in the script and via cinematography). The world within the prison is understandably drab and gray, as is the outside world whenever Malik is committing one bad act or another while on a day pass. This serves though to highlight the beauty of other scenes (both inside and out of prison) which find Malik at peace, where the lighting is just that much brighter or the sun finds a way to peek out from the clouds – in order to help remind both the character and the audience that there is both good and evil inside everyone.

After seeing “A Prophet”, I’m keeping my fingers crossed hoping for an upset win over “The White Ribbon” at this Sunday’s Oscars. A 4 out of 5, Audiard has crafted a masterful exploration of the human psyche within a genre film that should appeal to those who want more out of cinema – not simply a violent act followed by a vendetta necessitating a car chase all wrapped up in an explosion and gunfire (though there’s a need for those films too).