Sundance: A Prophet- “Un Prophète”

Our first film at the Sundance Film Festival was Jacques Audiard's brilliant gangster epic “Un Prophète” or A Prophet. Knowing this is going to sound hyperbolic, this film is on par with City of God, Goodfellas and Scarface, in that it features a main character who starts off as a relative innocent and through immersion into the world of crime (in this instance being wrongly incarcerated in a French prison), the protagonist emerges as a significant crime figure. It's really one of the best movies I've seen in a long time and writing this three days after viewing it, it still resonates strongly.

A Prophet was a winner of the Grand Prix prize at the Canne Festival and it's easy to understand why. The film straddles two worlds in conflict, that of the Arab immigrant in Europe, and their nationalist antagonists. When Malik El Djebena finds himself in prison at age 19, he is completely unequipped for what's ahead of him. Quickly enough he faces a kill-or-be-killed dilemma, and when he comes through for the prison mob boss, the path is opened for his eventual emergence as the dominant figure in the prison hierarchy. That probably gives too much away as it is, so I won't say more than that.

Featuring brilliant performances from Tahar Rahim in the lead role, Niels Arestrup doing a Brando-esque turn as the French prison boss Cesar, Hichen Yacoubi as Malik's first kill who becomes a ghostly presence through the remainder of the film, and Reta Kateb as Jordi the drug connection, these actors create memorable characters, defining the film in humanistic rather than violent/action-packed sequences- a component of the very best films of the genre.

As one of those French films whose distribution in the states remains tenuous, if you are appreciative of gangster films as a genre, or interested in cinema that explores conflicts among different societies or cultures, or if you are just a fan of great acting or plotting in movies, A Prophet is a film not to be missed- add it to your Netflix queue right now and keep an eye for it at your local theater- you won't regret seeing this searing masterpiece.

Update 02/02/10: “Un Prophète” has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. If there is a screening in your city, I can't recommend it strongly enough.