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If a male filmmaker desires to throw up grim truth and reality before the eyes of moviegoers and also swoon critics, many of whom subsist on darker themes, he will at some point consider making a film about war or prison. There are no greater immediate settings for tapping perennial sentiments of a mad world, or for demystifying masculinity by scraping it and reducing it to a primal essence. Unlike the ambitious gangster or mob film, reputable prison dramas tend to feature a protagonist that is closer to us, a person thrown to hell rather than embodying it, nakedly amidst wolves as opposed to running with them. (Ironic, given these characters’ punishments at the hands of society and/or government.)

Engrossing and well-crafted but formulaic and borderline genre-fare, A Prophet is the latest prison film to follow this mold and punch its way creatively outward. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, A Prophet has landed on a number of top 10 lists for 2009; with a domestic release forthcoming, we’ll likely see its inclusion on many of this year’s as well.

When /Film posted the first trailer for A Prophet, we noted the audacity of a London Times quote shown therein declaring it on par with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (including The Godfather 2). I can’t deny that as I began to watch the film this month in NYC inside a private Sony screening room—the company releasing the French picture stateside—this type of loud, post-Cannes buzz danced lightly atop my skepticism. Clocking in at almost three hours though, I wondered how A Prophet might challenge the scope and history of Coppola’s masterpieces when it’s primarily set in such a confined setting. When the credits rolled, I was both surprised and mildly disappointed to find that A Prophet covered more literal ground sans flashbacks than fresh psychological and cultural territory.

In a brisk and familiar wash-’em-and-cloth-’em fashion, viewers are introduced to the main character, a street-wise, uneducated and confident 19-year-old inmate named Malik. Convicted of assaulting a cop (in addition to having priors) we encounter Malik as he’s sentenced to six years in a French prison. Half-Arab and half-French, once Malik is officially in the system we observe as he carefully walks and observes the edge of a divide between Arab inmates and the looming, controlling Corisican inmates (whose mob ties are even stronger outside).

Somewhat predictably, a sex-related shower scene is pivotal to Malik, a loner, being coerced to side with the Corisicans by murdering an Arab for their benefit. If he refuses, he will likely spend his sentence fearing a similar fate. And to the film’s benefit, Malik is an opportunist first, an ethicist third or fourth. From this point forward, the film attempts to shed light on the discrimination of Muslims in French prisons (and in general French society). But honestly any enlightenment provided is interchangeable with the culture-clashes seen in so many American-made prison movies; a similar tension between imprisoned blacks and Neo-Nazis in American History X is more gripping on screen, the conflicting physicality and violation more haunting.

The prison in A Prophet is believable enough but its hidden workings and commerce are never profound enough to make it feel like a character; this is a fault in my opinion. Within the prison’s walls, the aesthetics and daily routines are again reminiscent of those seen in American films. Casual shop-talk about spending time in “the hole” and so forth. Sex, drugs, and Playstations are smuggled in via a don’t-look-don’t-tell makeshift hierarchy, just as favors have for years in prisons in films and in real life. This is fine, but so many trodden aspects of prison life here are presented, however solidly, as if we haven’t seen them on screen before.

However, where A Prophet makes a memorable claim for originality is in the preference of director Jacques Audiard (The Beat that My Heart Skipped) to forgo aforementioned muscular archetypes in favor of a less pronounced physicality in hero and villain. A career-making performance by Algerian actor Tahar Rahim as Malik is every bit as magnetic as Tom Hardy‘s in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s rioutous 2009 ode to prison-alpha-antics Bronson. (And it’s up there with Eric Bana‘s performance in Andrew Dominik‘s similar Chopper from 2000.) Yet, Rahim’s smarts and reserved swagger recall a ’70s star—a great ‘stache, natch—and share none of Hardy’s and Bana’s psycho rage, or Edward Norton’s equally formidable, transformative brawn. He’s Steve McQueen and Leo Fitzpatrick rolled in one, a modern throwback.

Rahim is just an impossibly cool motherfucker on screen. It’s hard to deny or to recall an actor in a prison film who is this handsome. In the film’s grittier scenes, as when Malik practices hiding a razor blade in his mouth in front of a mirror—for an upcoming murder—the horror of his situation doesn’t resonate fully because we’re too busy reveling in a failed challenge to Malik’s steely calm.

Malik’s defacto boss in the prison, an aged, white-haired Corisican leader named Cesar (Niels Arestrup) is similarly lacking in physique—his belly a bulge, his face mean but soft-chinned and fey in a European way. Unlike Rahim/Malik, in this case I was not convinced that such a man could reign supreme for years over a chaotic criminal enterprise in prison. In fact, I’d argue that given the film’s length, viewers should have had more insight into how Cesar maintained his iron grip while exploring his blackmarket savvy.

Cesar’s age is never eclipsed by a healthy, superlative intelligence or a talent for masterful manipulation—Harry Dean Stanton’s character, The Prophet, on Big Love comes to mind as an example of getting this right, as does, of course, Marlon Brando in The Godfather. In several scenes, Cesar seems too desperate and slight, but also too dramatically overheated, whether when threatening Malik in the yard or conducting business from his comfortable cell. The stakes involved in inevitable conflicts between Cesar and Malik never soar towards a pulsing and satisfying conclusion. We fear Malik’s unpredictable determination more than Cesar’s wrath.

Audiard desires to illustrate an everyman who comes from nothing, becomes something, and transcends into something of almost mythical stature and power—mirroring the arc of unapologetic gangster pictures (Blow, Scarface, American Gangster). Audiard’s film is literally framed as a series of Machiavellian lessons learned, recalling an Oscar-minded adaptation of the cult self-help book The 48 Laws of Power; these lessons are fleshed out with a series of encounters with strangers—complete with their first names boldly presented on screen—whose faces are carved by years of crimes committed and and crimes survived. Was I the only one reminded of Grand Theft Auto in this regard? A few of these peripheral characters are not memorable enough to warrant the Inglourious Basterds-like freeze frames.

Going in, I didn’t know the title could be interpreted literally. On several occasions, Malik is visited in his cell by the ghost of his first murder victim. This could very well be a psychological manifestation of guilt, but in such scenes Malik becomes privy to prophetic foresight. During one mission involving roadside deer, a premonition eerily saves his life. Religious overtones aside, the Dawinism-like symbolism of these supernatural elements eludes me; and the addition of a fantastical, artsy-inclined badge on a work of stark realism would be jarring if it wasn’t so subtly massaged into the proceedings.

Unlike like The Godfather, A Prophet never decides what to say about society, the source and minutiae of ethnic differences, and the human condition (beyond a capacity for resilience and character building). But it’s also unlike Bronson and Chopper, because A Prophet does indeed strive for a higher meaning; epic philosophical notions just end up wisping through the sunlight-starved, gray walls of its prison setting like Malik’s ghost pal.

Fortunately, watching Tahar Rahim mature as Malik and watching the way he soaks up all of the life and leisure he can during 24-hour releases from prison (granted for good behavior, used to complete violent missions) will stay with you years after you leave the theater. If there’s a successfully conveyed theme here, it’s that once you’re done with something it’s not necessarily done with you.

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Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and on Twitter.

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