A Prophet (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

A Prophet swept the César Awards, winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, and a host of others.

The Cannes Film Festival has been on a streak lately of epic crime sagas. Well, it has scored two in a row, anyway—in 2008 it premiered Matteo Garrone’s great Italian film Gomorrah and last year it premiered Jacques Audiard’s great French film A Prophet. Two films might seem a little slight to call a streak, but think about it—what was the last really good epic crime movie before these two films? There’s a reason both have been frequently compared to The Godfather; there’s not a whole lot else much like them.

A Prophet is the story of a friendless, affiliation-free 19-year old illiterate French kid of Arab descent named Malik (Tahar Rahim), who at the beginning of the film finds himself in prison for a relatively minor crime, which the film implies he may not have committed at all. Soon after arriving in prison he is spotted by the ruling Corsicans, headed by a scarily intelligent, hostile, and powerful César (Niels Arestrup), and despite their ethnic differences they form a shaky bond for Malik to kill an Arab who the Corsicans want killed but don’t have any access to. After a harrowing scene involving Malik’s attempt to do so, most of the rest of the movie depicts Malik’s in-prison education, involving everything from reading and writing to how to kill people, smuggle goods, rule a prison, and just about everything else.

While at times Gomorrah felt like a conglomeration of great scenes with only a slight relation to one another, A Prophet is more focused on creating a real, three-dimensional character in Malik who has a real plot trajectory, to where the viewer is always very aware of the motivations for his often abhorrent actions. As such, A Prophet is a little more accessible than Gomorrah was, given that it is a lot easier to get lost in the story for the duration of the 2 hour 35 minute running time, where Gomorrah’s more episodic nature made it feel longer than it actually was. Plus, there’s plenty of tension to get you by for A Prophet’s duration, though it still finds time for quieter moments that help round out Malik’s character.

A Prophet received the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, which is the second prize in the festival (Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon got the Palme d’or, Cannes’ first prize), and was nominated alongside The White Ribbon for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, losing to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes. The White Ribbon was great, though not as good as A Prophet, and while I haven’t seen The Secret in Their Eyes yet, it is hard to imagine it being a whole lot better than A Prophet. Perhaps it’s more logical to look at its sweep of the César Awards, France’s equivalent to the Oscars, where it won Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, and a host of others. It is this kind of attention that A Prophet deserves; hopefully audiences won’t bide their time in finding this one. | Pete Timmermann

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