(Be sure to read yesterday's The Secret in Their Eyes review first if you haven't yet!)
We've all seen prison movies and we've all seen stories about young criminals rising through the ranks. Both tend to be pulpy, the former a bit more so than the latter, but the French film A Prophet manages to mix the two with a dash of coming-of-age story and an unobtrusive whiff of racial politics to produce a rather terrific piece of work, frankly one of the best films I've ever seen in either subgenre.
The story begins with a scrawny, broke, illiterate, and terrified 19-year-old Arab named Malik getting thrown into prison for six years for hitting a cop (whether or not he was provoked or it even went down the way the police say is never specified). Malik tries his best to settle in and not get fucked up or killed behind bars but the movie quickly throws us the curveball when the prison's crime boss Luciani gives Malik two options: either kill a witness he shares a cell block with before he testifies, or die. So Malik hides a razor blade in his mouth then pretends like he's gonna meet the guy for prison sex and kills him in just about the most harrowing and bloody onscreen death of the year.
So Malik is now part of Luciani's crew, like it or not, and becomes a mafia errand boy basically because it's better than dying. He learns to read and write and makes a friend in prison and eventually gets twelve-hour furloughs for outwardly good behavior, during which he does drug smuggling and murder for Luciani while surreptitiously making contacts in the criminal world and developing his own network. The film takes its time, running 150 minutes as we watch Malik make the most of his prison sentence, but stays riveting, ending with one of my favorite final thirty or so seconds of a film before the credits roll that I've seen in a long time, a dialogue-free sequence involving a lot of cars that perfectly shows how full the circle has been come.
Much of the credit must go to lead actor Tahar Rahim. He only plays the character across six years but the changes to his hair and beard and the rougher look the makeup artists gradually give his face pale in comparison to the change in the way he carries himself. While remaining youthful his posture and tone and the look in his eyes imperceptibly shift minute-by-minute, transforming the scared kid from the first scene whose ass you're sure you could kick into a confident and intimidating crime boss by the end. Actors have undergone less transformation and character development throughout decade-long TV series, let alone single movies. It makes you wish there could be a sequel so you could see what happens to Malik over the next six years.
But maybe it's for the best if there isn't one. I've seen enough crime stories to know that what happens next would inevitably have to be it all crumbling around him, and if I want to see all that I'll just watch Scarface or the Godfather movies again. A Prophet is great entertainment simply because it's kinda awesome to watch this guy climb the ranks from the unlikeliest of places. Far from a stodgy "foreign drama" cliché, it's a bloody, tense, and occasionally even satisfying good time. Although it was released in France in 2009 I didn't see it until well into 2010, so I'm not gonna insert it into my best of 2009 list, but it's a sure bet for a high rank on my list this year.
4 Stars out of 5
The Secret in Their Eyes vs. A Prophet final verdict: I'm not gonna bury the lede here — A Prophet, hands down. The Academy goofed. Not badly, since The Secret in Their Eyes is a fine film, but it's just not as good as A Prophet. It's actually easier than you might think to compare the two since both fall under the genre umbrella of crime drama, Secret being a murder mystery and Prophet being a rising crime boss story, but in both cases the genre is merely the mask for a what boils down to character pieces about their protagonists.
Comparing their crime drama elements, A Prophet scores a knockout victory. I've seen characters working their way up the crime ladder before, yes, but only a dozen or so times. Murder mysteries on the other hand I've seen and read somewhere close to a thousand of, so Prophet simply feels less stale than Secret. It actually brings new ideas to the rising crime boss narrative by setting it in prison and making the star an Arab, but while Secret is a classily-shot and beautiful-to-observe murder mystery that doesn't change the fact that at the script level it's just kind of another murder mystery.
Looking to the character studies it comes down to performance, and as engaging as Ricardo Darín's melancholy is in Secret in Their Eyes Tahar Rahim brings fire and visceral emotion to Malik in A Prophet that Darín simply can't match. He doesn't come even close, really. Also, Secret spans twenty-five years while Prophet only spans six, and other than some gray dye in his hair and beard Darín basically gives the same performance in each time frame. Rahim meanwhile evolves from a puff ball to something made of iron before our eyes, and he does it without even needing any dye.
So why did the Academy go with The Secret in Their Eyes for Best Foreign Language Film? First temptation might be to hone in on Secret being a bit chillier and more elegant while Prophet is something raw and dirty, but seeing as the gritty, sweaty The Hurt Locker swept the whole damn show, even writing categories it had no business winning in, that's not quite right. No, here's the real thing: The Secret in Their Eyes is about an old man looking back on his life, while A Prophet is about a young man looking ahead to the rest of his life, and the people who vote for Best Foreign Language Film are, by and large, for lack of a better word, decrepit. Prophet was the victim of some straight-up ageism.
But as a young man myself (just one year younger than Malik at the end of the film, and I haven't even put in the first steps towards building my criminal empire yet!), I hereby declare A Prophet the true winner. A Secret in Your Eyes, you should FedEx your statue to A Prophet by this coming Friday. It ain't too late to set things right.