For my money, A Prophet (Un prophète) is not just the best foreign language film of the year; it’s the best film, period. Malik, an orphan, has grown up as a petty criminal. But he is now 19 years old and his latest crime, assaulting a policeman, lands him in the Big House for the first time. Life in real prison is controlled by the Corsican mafia, who use their outside contacts to make life better for the bribable guards. But there is also an Arab gang and a group of Arab Islamists. Step by step, Malik is educated in the ways of organized crime until, after six years, he figures out how to take charge.
A Prophet clocks in at 2½ hours, but there is so much action and tension that it never lags. Of all the Academy screenings that I attended, this was the only one that inspired the audience to applaud when the director’s name (Jacques Audiard) appeared in the credits. Every aspect of A Prophet is well-done, not just the direction and acting, but the cinematography, the casting and the score. It even won the sound design category at the European Film Awards. Those looking for an American equivalent, think Scarface, although Tahar Rahim’s Malik is a less ambitious character than Al Pacino’s Tony Montana.
One note of warning: early in the film, there is a horrific and bloody scene that is not for the faint-hearted and, indeed, haunts Malik himself for the rest of the story. Although there are other violent episodes, this is the only one that viewers might find upsetting.