French director Jacques Audiard’s gripping prison drama A Prophet is a further sign that European cinema is currently giving Hollywood a hiding when it comes to making exciting and intelligent crime movies.
In the last year or so, Italian Mafia drama Gomorrah showed up rival US Mob movies and the two-part French crime biopic Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy Number 1 did a better job of charting the career of an iconic crook than Michael Mann’s John Dillinger pic Public Enemies.
Now comes Audiard’s A Prophet, a movie with the cool brute assurance of a jail-yard kingpin.
At the start of the film, however, its protagonist couldn’t be more of an underdog. Tahar Rahim’s Malik El Djebena is an illiterate 19-year-old French Arab, a vagrant who’s just been sentenced to six years in a tough prison. Friendless and vulnerable, he has victim stamped all over him.
He survives by coming under the protection of César Luciani, brutal Godfather of the jail’s dominant Corsican gang. Luciani gets him to carry out a chilling task, an act that haunts Malik thereafter.
The Corsicans still treat him as an outsider, but Malik endures, quietly learning their language, gaining confidence and knowledge, and shrewdly developing his own plans. And, as Luciani’s power wanes, his own increases.
Malik’s progress is compelling and the film keeps the viewer in a vice-like grip throughout its more than two and a half hour running time. Newcomer Rahim is outstanding, a mesmerising screen presence and worthy winner of the Best Actor award at the European Film Awards in December. Danish actor Niels Arestrup, surprisingly cast as the Corsican Mafioso, is scarily impressive too.
The film’s top dog, though, has to be Audiard, who directs with complete control, effortlessly fusing beady-eyed social realism, savage action and hallucinatory fantasy to create a searing crime movie masterpiece.
On general release from 22nd January.