Here I am, reaching the end of the week, and I'm starting to feel my resolve sapped by one too many mediocre films (I think Getting Home might have pushed me too far). But then I see a film like Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, and I'm a little embarrassed by my lack of endurance. First, because this is a quality piece of work and it shouldn't feel like a chore to drag my lazy ass out the door to see it, and second, because Audiard manages to sustain a remarkable level of tension for two and a half hours without relenting—a rather impressive feat of endurance in itself.
One could take this tale as a sly commentary on the immigrant experience, but A Prophet offers a great deal of satisfaction simply in the twists of its tight narrative. Malik El Djebena enters a French prison with nothing, slowly working his way up in this world of rival factions. A group of Corsican gangsters strong-arm Malik into assassinating one of their enemies in prison, and the young man finds himself playing the role of their lackey, sneered at for being an Arab and yet increasingly essentially to the operations of the gang. As Cesar Luciani, the group's leader, finds his partners whittled away through paroles and murders, he increasingly relies on Malik. And yet still the young man has to jump when his boss calls, doing errands and making coffee.
All the while, Malik is quietly gathering power, creating a drug-running operation outside of prison and forging alliances with other gangs both inside and outside the prison. This is a difficult character to capture, and Tahar Rahim does an excellent job, depicting Malik's transformation from helpless to powerful in a way that feels plausible and natural. After the initial shock of being forced to murder a man, Malik effaces himself, gives himself over to the role of servant, only to find that his dutifulness and loyalty is a kind of power in itself. And Cesar, as portrayed by Niels Arestrup (in a performance that nicely complements his work in Audiard's last film, The Beat My Heart Skipped), inspires some pathos as he travels an opposite trajectory, transforming from a fearsome, domineering figure into an isolated, helpless old man.
Audiard's direction is often tactile and vivid. He casts his eye on little viscous details that make for some striking images. Yes, it's an engrossing, intense story, but much of the film's power lies in those small touches that make the most sensational moments feel tangible. I'm struck by the sight of Malik washing the blood from his hair after a particularly grisly hit, which makes a surreal bit of movie violence suddenly seem horrifically real. Or what of that string of blood and spittle that arcs between his hand and mouth before that first assassination? The blood comes from a razor hidden in Malik's mouth—the only way to get a weapon this close to the intended victim—and it drives the weight of the moment straight into my gut. Aside from a few ill-conceived excursions into the supernatural, this is a film that remains firmly rooted in a queasy, inescapable present.