Amid the two most recent European imports that de-romanticized or played with the formulas of gangster films (Gomorrah and Il Divo, respectively), it’s almost a surprise to see a modern Mafia movie that restores the genre to the operatic gravity of its Godfather lineage. The Academy Award nominee A Prophet does just that, while maintaining the gritty street cred and handheld verisimilitude that defined director Jacques Audiard’s previous success, 2004’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
A Prophet is set in a French prison divided into an ethnic and cultural hierarchy between the privileged Corsicans and deprived Muslims. When meek, illiterate 19-year-old Arab Malik El Djebana (Tahar Rahim) enters this menacing hoosegow for a six-year sentence, he’s immediately targeted as a possible lackey by Mafia kingpin César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who threatens the naive teenager’s life if he doesn’t murder a rival cellmate for him. The more orders Malik takes from César, the more comfortable Malik’s prison life becomes until he’s ready to build his own empire.
The violence in A Prophet is genuine and harrowing — one scene is practically vomit-inducing. But the spiritual, even mystical undercurrent alluded by the movie’s title takes this bloody epic into unforeseen directions that, in one instance, turns what could have been a flagrant deus ex machina into the film’s majestic centerpiece. This distinction also helps elevate moments in the movie that feel rote and routine, such as the Scorsese-cribbed montages scored to American pop music. Audiard has said that he wanted A Prophet to be the anti-Scarface, but, like Brian de Palma’s more-excessive mob relative, his film is easily accessible and grandiosely entertaining. It’s also positively exportable, if it weren’t for those pesky subtitles. Expect a superfluous, spiritually bereft American remake sooner than you can say, “capisce.”