Imagine a jigsaw puzzle piece dropped from a 20-foot height falling miraculously and perfectly into the last space in a 1,000-piece puzzle, and you’ll have some idea of the exhilarating effect of the final scene of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.”
This film was one of the nominees in the foreign-language Oscar category, although it lost to Argentina’s entry. That better be one great movie, because “A Prophet” is a triumph.
The film’s hero is a cousin to the protagonists of “The Godfather” or “Scarface,” but the movie writes its gangland saga without phony mob glamour. In fact, most of it takes place within a harsh prison.
As “A Prophet” opens, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim) arrives in jail. A young man who knows absolutely nothing about anything, he is easily exploited by the Corsican gang that rules the yard.
He can’t truly be one of them, because of his North African heritage, but the big boss, Cesar (Niels Arestrup), uses him as a gofer and a go-between—and in one harrowing sequence, an assassin.
The story takes place over six years’ time, and after a while Malik earns enough points to qualify for furloughs. All the while, he learns. He does errands. He curries favor. And he watches.
Because director Audiard is not spelling anything out for us, we notice these developments ourselves. He took a similar approach in his two previous films, both superb, “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.”
For a while, the virtually unknown actor Rahim seems to fade into the wallpaper; yet by the time the intricate deals of the final hour begin to go down, he’s become defined, sharp, sharklike.
It’s something of a mystery — even after the movie ends — whether Malik’s instincts are nearly visionary (that might be why it’s called “A Prophet”) or whether he simply develops improvisatory skills to make the best out of any situations handed to him.
Is he a genius or a savant? He’s a good chess player, that’s for sure. And watching him slowly navigate the shoals of the criminal anthill makes for fascinating viewing.
When the final scene comes on, we realize we’ve been guided in a very particular way to this exact spot — the camerawork, the performances and the droll choice of music bring the curtain down in a very satisfying and sinister way.
Along with winning a major prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and getting the Oscar buzz, “A Prophet” revives a tired genre, the mob picture. Martin Scorsese, eat your heart out.