We never really know why Tahar Rahim is sent to prison. There’s some shouting about a riot and a cop, and the fact that he’s an Arab. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions. What we do know, what’s painfully obvious, is that he enters prison a scared young man, obviously out of his depth; a total stranger to the real world of crime. How he becomes a major player in that world — a cold, calculating, shrewd force to be reckoned with — is the subject of Jacques Audiard’s latest film, “A Prophet.” It is a riveting, gritty, intense and very well-told crime story; the kind of movie that usually comes from Scorsese, Mann, or Coppolla. Indeed, I’m not going to shy away from a grand reference; watching Rahim’s transformation reminded me of watching the rise and fall of Michael Corleone.
Rahim is immediately put into an impossible situation. Corsican crime boss Neils Arestrup (who has serious gravitas about him; we never question that this is a man acquainted with power over life and death) needs someone killed and Rahim, because he is new and because he’s Arab, is the only man able to do the killing. Arestrup makes it simple: kill for me, and I’ll protect you. Refuse, and I’ll have you killed. And he has the power to back up his words; even the prison guards take orders from him. And so Rahim does what he has to do. And his path is set. Like the classic movies from the directors I mentioned above, this one has that almost Greek theater sense of fate and terrible moral choices. The murder is not stylish; it’s messy and almost botched, there’s blood everywhere, and Rahim is anything but cool, calm and collected in the midst of it all.
Rahim is a quick learner, and is almost invisible to Arestrup and his cohorts because of his skin color. He learns to read in about 12 seconds, then learns to speak Corsican so he can eavesdrop on his boss. When Arestrup finds out, he slaps him around, but also realizes it makes him more useful; now he can eavesdrop on his bosses enemies (who he, naturally, keeps closer than his friends.) Rahim is also able to leave prison on day passes, so Arestrup sends him on errands. But he’s smart enough to do more than he’s told; before long, he’s got his own drug-trafficking racket running on the side, and is using the contacts he made through Arestrup to advance his own agenda.
“A Prophet” is an excellent movie, a compelling story well-told, but there are directorial touches that seem pretentious and unnecessary, including a weird tendency to narrow the screen into a fuzzy circle, apparently to show us what our hero is looking at, though I don’t know anybody who sees the world through fuzzy, erratically moving circles. And the title comes from a dream Rahim has that comes true; he’s able to warn someone important about impending disaster just before it happens, possibly saving lives. This feels out of place and bizarre. But its performances are solid, and occasionally spectacular; Arestrup, in particular, is memorable. Here is a performance to give Marlon Brando a run for his money.
By the time Rahim leaves prison, he is a different person. Because of a dying friend, he has a family to take care of, and the means of taking care of them. He does not flinch in the face of death; his first kill is long behind him. He has grown up in jail; he entered a kid, but emerges a man. It is sobering to consider what his life as an adult will look like from this point forward.