★ ★ ★ ☆
I suppose the fact that I refrained from giving A Prophet four stars could be construed as fairly harsh criticism. I assure you that I'm not going to go all Armand White, though I did enjoy his overstated review. A Prophet was a very enjoyable film, laced with several riveting scenes. The first murder scene (yes, there's a murder in a movie about prison violence) is among the most intense scenes you'll see anywhere. The themes of Arabs in French culture, and the prison as a farm team for criminal organizations were handled particularly well. Good as it was, it was far from perfect.
From a technical standpoint, A Prophet was pretty solid. The acting was great all around; the cinematography was exceptional. Malik (Tahar Ratim) maintained a prophetic demeanor (as it were), even in the most chaotic scenes. Director Jacques Audiard was able to create (what I assume to be) a more authentic incarceration experience than most viewers have ever experience. He managed to capture the claustrophobia, the degradation, and the sheer terror of
life in a maximum security prison.
My problems were twofold. First, I couldn't stand the ending. When contrasted with it's closest cousin, The Godfather, it's ending comes up short. To avoid spoilers, I will refrain from further comment on this point. Second, the prophetic elements muddled the point of the film. There were the subtle allusions to Muhammad, such as the 40 days in solitary, which added greatly to the film, and then the supernatural elements, like his prophetic dreams. The supernatural elements were problematic, from a normative perspective.
Essentially, A Prophet can be interpreted as an allegory for the rebellion against colonialism. After all, it is about an immigrant prisoner, who can neither read, nor write the language of overseers. He is taken on as a servant by the Sicilian prisoners, who treat him like a dog. The combination of the anti-colonial theme, and the quasi-religious elements bothered me. If religious assumptions are going to be incorporated into a film, it should be done without losing site of the moral implications. If Malik is actually a prophet, then what do his brutal actions tell us about his faith? Are drug lords the new shepherds? Either Audiard is implying that there is a God, who is quite evil, or is being inconsistent. I assume the latter is the case.
In an interview, Audiard stated that "The character of the Prophet heralds this new criminal prototype: he’s not a psychopath, he’s intelligent and almost angelic." This is what makes Malik fascinating. The religious allusions are great, but the outright supernatural elements bring up too many metaphysical questions that undermine the film. Though A Prophet is not perfect, it is a must see. Just don't let the hype create unrealistic expectations.