Among the great acting moments in recent memory, I would place near the top of the list the following sequence in Jacques Audiard’s immersing organized-crime thriller, A Prophet: newcomer Tahar Rahim, playing the young, resourceful antihero, Malik El Djebena, stands on an airport escalator unable to totally suppress the waves of excitement, confusion, and childlike surprise flooding his face and body as he realizes that he is about to take his first plane ride—as if he were a free man like any other. Audiard has always built his movies on his male protagonist’s charisma—Mathieu Kassovitz in A Self-Made Hero (96), Vincent Cassel in Read My Lips (01), Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (05)—but here, he took a gamble on an unknown, inexperienced actor, and it pays off brilliantly. We have the sense, perhaps, that the actor, like the character, is making it up as he goes along, and that one miscalculation or momentary loss of concentration could lead to disaster—for the character and the film itself. Seemingly effortless, it is a prodigious high-wire act, and it should have resulted in as many awards for Rahim as the film itself has already received. The focus of every scene, he leads us through the thickets of the plot as if nothing matters except how he manipulates everyone else to ensure his own survival.
Like the strangely alluring The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet is a genre movie that mixes lyricism and violence with a detailed depiction of the little-remarked underbelly of an institution that the kind of people who go to Audiard movies—at home and abroad—would rather ignore. Here, it is the rise to power in France of an Arab mafia, vying for turf with the older established Corsican and Italian criminal organizations. The film has been compared to The Godfather; its depiction of a youth of decidedly non-royal lineage working his way up the underworld ladder is, in fact, much closer to Goodfellas, and in one rock-accompanied, hyperbolically edited passage, Audiard pays homage to Scorsese’s mastery of the moment when things spin out of control. But with its lush Alexandre Desplat score, deeply shadowed compositions, and fluid, understated camera movement, A Prophet is distinctly an Audiard construction.
Born to one Arab and one Caucasian-French parent, El Djebena is already the consummate outsider when he’s arrested for a petty crime and sentenced to six years. Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican mafia kingpin still running his organization from his cell, notices Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab prisoner who is about to testify in an organized crime trial, sexually proposition El Djebena. He recruits the street-savvy, seemingly fragile kid to murder his wannabe lover, telling him that if he refuses, he will be killed himself. El Djebena does the dastardly deed, but guilt and repressed sexual desire cause him to incorporate his victim into his psyche. Reyeb becomes a kind of ghost guide, appearing to El Djebena both in his sleep and while awake, and his last living words of advice—that the boy must find a way to leave prison with more education than he had when he came in—are followed to the max.
As a reward for the favor El Djebena has done Luciani, he’s given the protection of the Corsicans, but as an Arab, he’s treated with contempt. Eventually, Luciani wrangles the authorities to grant El Djebena, who has become a model prisoner, some time on the outside so he can ensure that he has a job when his sentence is up. Entrusted by Luciani to carry messages to his allies, El Djebena begins to do his own deals and to play various factions against one another. His reputation is enhanced when, aided by a vision of Reyeb, his senses go on high alert (this is the rational explanation) and he’s able to avert a deadly car collision. “What are you?” inquires the awed mobster who has him in handcuffs. “A prophet?” I don’t think he—or Audiard—means it ironically.