Attempting to find a starting point to discuss last year's Best Foreign Film Academy Award nominee A Prophet reminds me of its protagonist, freshman prisoner Malik, fumbling through his first murder. Malik has his target, and the stakes, like looming deadlines, are inescapableÂ ' kill or be killed. He can perform practice runs all he wants, but when the time comes to stare at another man and lunge for his jugular, coordination and artistry go out the jail cell.Â
With young Malik in mind, let me inelegantly say that A Prophet has shades of the gangster classics it's been compared to; it bears The Godfather's fall from purity and City of God's brutal realism. But the digestion of the thing 'Â its toughness that requires a persistent, mandibular gnawing to get to its juices ' feels more like working through an Umberto Eco novel. It's dense and rewarding but also frustratingly demanding.Â
The film, by French director Jacques Audiard, concerns the education of Malik on the cutthroat nature of life in prison. At first, French-Arab Malik (played captivatingly by Tahar Rahim) seems like a charismatic, soft-centered naÃ¯f with a vaguely Shia LaBeoufian quality. He is swiftly threatened by, then taken under the protection of mafia boss CÃ©sar (Niels Arestrup), a dead-eyed Corleone behind bars but firmly in control of his incarceration.Â
After his first messy kill, Malik gradually works his way from mere survivor to a made thriver, even managing prison-release weekend crime escapades. In his unique ability to ingratiate himself anywhere, Malik's stock rises. 'You talk with Muslims, Corsicans, you come here,â?� says a drug dealer during Malik's improbable trip to Brazil. 'Straddling everyone 'Â it's not too great on your balls.â?�Â
Considering the daily death match he has to go back to, it doesn't require nearly as much of Malik's balls to dress in a suit and court cohorts as it does to take the reigns of his growing power back in prison. Audiard doesn't make the ascent a quick or easy one, either, and nor does Malik, who still believes he's maintained enough of his soul to look forward to returning to his family after his six years are finished. That saccharine plotline provides the biggest challenge to the viewer: Can we really expect that he will see a happy ending? When and if it comes, wouldn't it negate the entire message of the film, that prison rehabilitates nobody; it only rebuilds you from granite?Â
A Prophet leaves a bitter aftertaste. The more thought you put into the content, the more questions (and doubts) arise. What really changed in Malik after that first murder that he didn't already have within himself? Did Audiard really sell the idea that this scrawny scrapper could ever pose a challenge to anyone in power? Can you go home again?Â
Sometimes it's enough that you bought into it for those two and a half hours; that the film succeeded at suspending your disbelief for a period of time and transported you somewhere you didn't want to be but couldn't look away from. Like Malik, sometimes it's enough to survive.