A Prophet Jacques Audiard

A Prophet Jacques Audiard
Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, A Prophet arrives at the 2009 TIFF with built-in buzz, which is almost sustained to the end.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is sent to a French prison for attacking a police officer, and while the reason is never fully revealed, one gets the feeling his prison education will create a more vicious soul.

Almost immediately, Malik is recruited by volatile Mafia chief Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) for his skill with Arabic languages and low profile. The first brutal hit Cesar orders Malik to carry out haunts him throughout his rise to power through brief, stylized hallucinations — the deceased Reyeb smokes in Malik's cell and exhales through his slit throat, for instance.

As Malik continues to work for Cesar in order to stay alive in prison, he's forced to confront his various personal compromises for prison life — how does one react to entering prison a poor criminal and becoming a rich murderer? Like any French film, even a savage crime drama, there's lots and lots of talking, rambling the film to the completely unnecessary 150-minute mark, even as the bodies continue to pile up. And like many French films of this decade, a graphically brutal murder is the centerpiece — Malik's first in-cell hit is one of the most emotionally draining murder scenes in recent memory.

However, director Jacques Audiard lets the narrative slip as the film drags on, with the family dynamics within and outside the prison becoming fatiguing to the viewer, with little resolve or climax presented. That said, Audiard effectively draws the audience in during the first half, creating a heartbreakingly realistic portrait of the French prison system, complete with real inmates. And Rahim is an engagingly natural presence as Malik.

While flawed in the end, A Prophet still gives the audience plenty to reckon with. (Mongrel Media)