A Trojan horse.
That's how French filmmaker Jacques Audiard describes his attitude toward genre: It's a vehicle for bringing in other concerns and an anchor to keep the audience grounded as the film explores richer, deeper ideas.
While The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard's remake of James Toback's Fingers, overlaid the framework of a gangster flick onto an examination of family, masculinity and identity, his new film, A Prophet (Un Prophète), now playing in Los Angeles and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is Audiard's fullest expression of that idea. A bracing look at the changing cultural face of contemporary France (with obvious parallels to current life stateside), A Prophet is part prison picture, part sociological inquiry and all snappy entertainment. It sneaks in as one thing and reveals itself as another, taking the audience to an unexpected place of understanding and something near transcendence.
A Prophet starts just as a young French Muslim named Malik El Djebena (charismatic newcomer Tahar Rahim, in an electric performance of startling nuance) has landed in prison. Why he's there is an afterthought, but he has six years to do for a small-time crime and, like a defenseless guppy dropped into a treacherous ocean, he is forced to navigate the waters of prison life. He learns, fast.
"It was a setting I didn't know — prison — and people I didn't know — Arab," Audiard explains during a recent stopover in Los Angeles. "Which is enough of a reason to investigate."
The film began as a script by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, which Audiard and his writing partner, Thomas Bidegain, rewrote to zero in on the prison as a central location and metaphor.
"It had a great energy, the screenplay," Bidegain says. "It was very in-your-face. Jail was just the first act, maybe 30 or 40 pages, and it became obvious it was much more interesting to tell the story of that gangster when he was inside jail. Because the moment he's out of jail it would be more like a regular gangster film."
In the finished film Malik finds himself floating between differing factions, treated as an errand boy and errant apprentice by an established gang of Corsicans (led by an old-timer played by Niels Arestrup as a ferocious shark struggling to continue moving forward), who are fighting to maintain power inside and outside the prison against a crew of Arabs, growing in numbers, as well as influence. Favorably compared to Goodfellas and the crime films of Michael Mann and Francis Ford Coppola, at almost two-and-a-half hours, A Prophet is both fleet-footed and comprehensive, exhaustive and energized. Think of it as a marathon, run at the pace of a sprint.
"It's perhaps unusual in a genre film to have a character that has complexity," Audiard notes, "that can dream, that is conflicted, so perhaps even by the end of this film you don't know him entirely. You see only part of what's inside."
Since directing his first film a little more than 15 years ago, Audiard, 57, has made only five features. He has previously worked with some of France's most notable male actors — including Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel and Romain Duris — which made his decision to cast an unknown in the lead for A Prophet even more significant. This fact was not lost on lead actor Rahim.
"I definitely perceived that the character had an evolution. He started from nothing and became something," says the 28-year-old Rahim, French-born of Algerian descent. "With my limited experience as an actor, I felt there was a parallel: I was starting from nowhere and going somewhere, becoming an actor."
Audiard, whose early film A Self Made Hero could just as easily provide the title for A Prophet, refers to Malik as an "anti–Tony Montana," placing him in distinction to Al Pacino's notoriously flamboyant coke kingpin from Brian De Palma's iconic Scarface. It's Audiard's idea of the Trojan horse again, allowing audiences to savor the kicky thrills of Malik's tutelage and growing gifts as a hustler and manipulator, while also making room for some sense of what is occurring under the surface, probing deeper into his interior life.
Within the richness of Audiard's broad canvas is the idea that Malik undergoes a spiritual conversion, that as he finds his place within the prison, he becomes more in touch with his Muslim identity. There is a way to read the film as a parable of a sacred awakening, and Malik may indeed be, as the title suggests, some kind of new leader.
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"At the very beginning he's somebody who has no identity — he is Arabic to the Corsicans and Corsican to the Arabs," says Bidegain. "He starts exploring his roots, and at the roots obviously is his sense of spirituality, and at some point he has to realize he's a Muslim. That's who he is."
At a time when France, like the United States, is struggling to reconfigure its sense of national identity, just what it means to be "French" and who can claim ownership of the nation's ideals, the character of Malik El Djebena can be read as both a new don and a new dawning, a distillation of the immigrant experience and a model of the mutability of people to their situation and location.
"Sociologically and politically France is being confronted with these issues right now," Audiard says, "where individuals have had to adapt to such new difficulties, and the intelligence required is not yet recognized. He is a prototype for a new way of thinking.
"He may be a prophet in so far as he is a precursor of a new type of human," Audiard adds. "In that way, he is ahead."