The French like a good crime movie. Godard played around with the genre. Truffaut admired it. Les flics y les crims. Recently there was the Mesrine double bill. So Audiard's latest slips into a well-worn tradition, and it does so with predictable style and verve.
The classic template for a successful movie is the coming of age tale. Take a young man (or less often woman) and follow them as they get to grips with their society and their psyche all at the same time. Tahar Raham's portrayal of Malik El Djebena, a French/ Arab/ Corsican petty criminal who gets six years for assaulting a policeman, is an exemplary portrayal of this coming of age. After an opening of great tension, Audiard lets the movie sprawl as Malik gradually takes control of the prison, learning from the Corsican mafioso Luciani, as he moves into organised crime, setting up his own firm and becoming a man in the process. Whilst the film has a host of influences, the movie it most closely seems to echo is Coppola's Godfather 2, with Raham taking on the Pacino role, only that his humanity is augmented by his ascension, whereas Pacino's was all but nullified.
It's a long movie, I would suggest a great afternoon movie. The sequence wherein Malik kills someone and hence becomes absorbed into the Corsican family, a sequence which occurs towards the film's beginning, is gripping, and Audiard captures Malik's huis clos with terrifying exactitude: kill or be killed. However, the tension thereafter ebbs, as it charts Malik's gradual rise through the ranks. It feels as though the director is seeking to create a more rounded, less pragmatic vision of his character's evolution, showing for example, how the act of going on a plane trip is all part of his evolution, the opening up of his world. Raham's portrayal captures the character's growing awareness of his own intelligence, and possibilities, as well as his sense of destiny. He is only referred to once as a prophet, and whilst the film plays on the notion that he can see flashes of the future, this is incidental to the plot. However, the closing sequence suggests that even more than for himself, this sense of destiny has a significance for the Muslim community he chooses to embrace, for reasons which are pragmatic rather than spiritual.
A Prophet is one of those big films whose sum is perhaps greater than its parts. Audiard seems restrained in his use of cinematic or narrative trickery, in spite of the doffing of the hat with the use of Reyeb's ghost. Most of all he seems to have set out to create a grand, overarching piece of cinema, a definitive contribution to the canon, a film that can be revisited time after time. He restricts his capacity for the extraordinary, letting the sheer weight of story, and the power of Malik's depiction do the work. Next time I see it, a few years down the line, I shall watch of a dismal afternoon, the kind of day you want to sit in a cinema, and watch a tale of how intelligence can still be used to shape the world, no matter how ruthless the world purports to be.