"A Prophet" is a solid film by Jacques Audiard. I made the mistake of thinking, despite the comments about it being "unromantic," that it was going to be flashy (like how some viewed "The Beat That My Heart Skipped"), but that was only in a couple of scenes here. Mostly, we get the (as others have said) "barren grey prison landscape" where Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is. "The outside" is realistically brought into the film, as Malik takes his eventual "leaves." But early on, the screen is blotched with black as Malik (in sometimes first-person perspective) "is in the dark" (as people say and have said about Malik in this film, figuratively and literally).
As mentioned by my friend, information is sparse in "A Prophet," and, as said before, we hardly know what Malik did to get into prison. But apparently, "he needs protection." Like my friend said, he could have been coerced into it, but perhaps he does. He swears at a couple of guys trying to steal his shoes, and he ends up without them and beaten up. As said before, This protection I'm talking about comes from César Luciani (Neils Arestrup). My friend is under the impression that César "uses him," as he's a Muslim, to go kill some guy that seems threatening to rat him out, Reyeb (Hichem Yocoubi). He's supposed to accept his dealings of "hash" and his commands to have oral sex with him, and to just cut him down with (as Ebert mentioned) "a razorblade". As Ebert said, this is an "inexperienced bloody murder," and also as people like Ebert et al. said, "the scenes here are among the most "powerful" in the film", especially when he's "trying to fit the razor in his mouth."
After he does this, "he's confronted with guilt" (as people say) and as people have mentioned, "it's in the form of Reyeb." One of the (as my friend said) "interesting" facets of this film is that Malik's relationship with this "ghost" makes a statement about his guilt or, in other cases, insanity. But then, as Ebert says, "he rises to be something a little more to César" (his "eyes and ears" as porter of the prison), but not too much, not enough so that César is not above (as a friend mentioned) "stabbing him with a spoon" or commanding that Malik's leave is "his leave."
Malik does get friends (as before he had "no friends or enemies" anywhere), such as Ryad (Adel Bencherif), whose son becomes Malik's godson, and Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb, who looks like Kevin Breznahan from "Adventureland" and "Superbad") who he smokes with and talks with. He "rises," as a critic and my friend said, like Michael Corleone, becoming a "master of managing business among the mob." By the end, he'd do something that he wouldn't think of doing before.
This film is, I guess, "engaging" (as the Playlist called it), as it does keep your eye on Malik. But as my friend said, I "drifted." The use of hip-hop, "Gobbledigook" by Sigur Ros, and "Corner of My Room" by Turner Cody in select scenes create those special, ""Goodfellas"-style zeitgeist moments"/"movie music moments" (to quote the Playlist) (ones that Armond White apparently hated), but there's not a lot of that. (Well, there are these seemingly random titles that occasionally introduce characters and title some sections of the film.) I would agree with my friend and the critics that detracted it who said that it got "too complex," as Anthony Lane said, "this stalled the film." I dunno, though. This is not a very memorable film, but I remember thinking it was at least pretty good all the way through, sometimes very good.
Rahim is good, but without the guidance of other critics I wouldn't have noticed his "flourishes" (as critics say). Arestrup, as Ebert said, is very good. As others said, these are the two "co-stars", and the others are minor players. I was disappointed by the ending, I won't lie. I wish it had been something a little better, but I guess at the end of a "prison saga," you needed to top it off.
This was probably the best of the nominees for Best Foreign Film, which I sort of expected. However, if you want my opinion, it's not the best film of the Cannes Official Selection. For now, that's still "Fish Tank," a film that had an "extreme effect" on me. When I saw it, I thought about it for days. Here, I might be tired or something, but I'm having trouble recalling "A Prophet" from yesterday. I think "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is slightly more entertaining (due to the "kinetic camera" vs. "A Prophet"'s pretty normal camera), though, and even though the resolution is a little flawed, it really gives you more of an "experience." "A Prophet" definitely deserves props, however, for being (as people say) "powerful" when it is and (as said before) "painting this picture of Malik." B+
Update (September 30, 2010): A second viewing shows this film as better than the grade I originally gave it. Maybe now it's an A or an A-.