On the heals of two masterful, but largely ignored films (Read My Lips '01 and The Beat that My Heart Skipped '05), French writer/director Jacques Audiard scores big time with his latest film, Un prophèt (aka: A Prophet '09), a nearly perfect modern crime masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.
A Prophet is an ambitious crime saga in the Goodfellas vein, but condensed into the lead character's 6 year stint in le grande maison. French/Arab actor Tahar Rahim completely inhabits the role of Malik El Djebena, who arrives in prison a scared, aimless 19-year-old and grows into a criminal of formidable skill and remarkable cunning. So much for rehabilitation.
In an effort to avoid spoilers, I'm going to skip discussing details of the plot because it benefits from remaining a little in the dark about where the story is going. The title, for example, isn't an absolute abstraction: the viewer is left to decide whether Malik has premonitions or if it's just his conscience playing out in some strange way. They don't impact on the story in any specific way, but Malik's appartently supernatural visions lend themselves to the mystery and magic of the film.... where by all rights it shouldn't work, it somehow does.
This is undoubtedly Audiard's best film (and that's saying something considering how good his earlier works are), a rare movie that bites off more than it can chew and then chomps it up with ease. The themes and characters are complex, multifaceted and expertly portrayed by a brilliant group of actors (Rahim and the Corsican crime boss played by long-time French character actor Niels Arestrup are particularly amazing). The film starts with a peculiarly-blank lead character (about which the audience knows nearly nothing about) and rather than working backwards to tell how he arrived in prison at 19-years-old, Audiard instead slowly builds him into a fully flushed-out character that we completely understand by the film's terrific finale. The story is told in a purely linear fashion, unlike most crime stories these days, and that too, somehow works.
This is the real deal boys, a film that knocks it out of the park and then some. They don't get much better than this. Winner.