'A Prophet': A great prison drama you've got to see

a-prophetImage Credit: Roger ArpajouThe magnificent French prison drama A Prophet swept France’s Cesar Awards last night, winning prizes for best picture, director, actor, original screenplay, and cinematography, among other categories. And if this news doesn’t quite rank up there with a box office report on the opening of Cop Out or the second weekend of Shutter Island, well, it’s still news I jump on to say more about the very best, most exciting movie not yet at most theaters near you. Oh, I can’t wait until it is at a theater near you — maybe after it wins an Oscar on March 7, in my perfect world? (The movie also won the Grand Prize last year at Cannes.)

Then you and I can discuss how engrossing and how thrilling filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s unconventionally “conventional” jailhouse saga is. (Here’s my EW review.) Then you and I can compare and contrast A Prophet to Goodfellas (props to Scorsese when he’s not wasting his talents on hooey like Shutter Island). We can discuss movies about convicts who come of age behind bars. We can discuss prison dramas in which ethnic antagonisms reflect the bigger world outside. We can talk about Audiard’s precise choice of casting a skinny French-Arab unknown in the crucial lead role, and how now-lauded actor Tahar Rahim’s then-anonymity became the character’s strength. And we can analyze the daring screenplay decision to include an actual jailhouse ghost in the plot.

We can do that, but only once you get to see the beaut. And since A Prophet is in French (and Arabic and Corsican) and since it comes with subtitles, the roll-out is necessarily (I suppose) slower. Which kills me, since I guarantee you it’s also way, way more exciting than anything else new you saw this past weekend.  So listen: If you were lucky enough to see it this weekend, tell us what you thought. And if you didn’t, while you’re waiting, maybe you can answer me this: What’s your favorite prison movie and why?

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  • Franklin

    I have not seen it yet because it has not come to a theater near me, but I really really want to.

    My favorite prison drama, however, is 2008’s “Hunger,” the most galvanizing, disturbing, powerful, yet overwhelmingly poetic and beautiful ‘prison drama’ I’ve seen. And it’s only a prison drama because it takes place in a prison, but it transcends that genre and becomes so much more.

  • Jeff

    I can’t wait to see “A Prophet.” I watched “The White Ribbon” this weekend and found it to be vastly over-rated.

  • Mac

    I’m looking forward to seeing The Prophet, based on all the good things being said about it.

    The Shawshank Redemption is my pick for best prison flick and I’m sure others will list it as theirs. Great ensemble with plot twists that were very satisfying. I recommend Shawshank to the few people who haven’t seen it – the ending can make a grown man misty-eyed.

    • Andy Bluebear

      Shawshank is a very overrated, overhyped movie.

      • Shannon

        I could not disagree with you more. Shawshank is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I am definitely not alone on that one.

      • Franklin

        Agreed. One of the most overrated movies ever made.

  • Franklin

    Oh my god! I actually just looked it up and it’s playing about 15 minutes from me! I’m not sure I can catch it this weekend but I will for sure by next weekend.

    • Lisa Schwarzbaum

      Go–and get back to me next weekend!

      • Charlie

        Franklin, get in your car,drive to where it is and go see it. NOW!

  • anne-marie

    I loved the movie. smart and well played.

  • solarjetpro

    Dead Man Walking, one of the few films that is emotionally devastating. A Prophet has been on my MUST list for months — seeing it tonight, hopefully.

  • s.


  • E.

    Lisa, thanks for drawing attention to this movie (and to smaller/foreign/indie movies more generally). I can’t wait to see it. This one–and Fish Tank and The Ghost Writer–are very high on my list right now.

    I had to move out of NYC for a while for work, and the most irritating thing about my new city is having to wait MONTHS for some of these films to roll around to Atlanta. Sigh.

  • Haldis

    I’ll try to see it, but I saw “A Single Man” this weekend and really loved it. Colin Firth gets my vote for the Oscar, and I have seen all the nominees. So I’m not sure it can be any better than that movie!

    • Franklin

      Yes, “A Single Man” is absolutely amazing. So beautiful and heartbreaking, totally snubbed by the Academy. It deserves so much more than just a Best Actor nod.

    • E.

      I agree, “A Single Man” has been underappreciated generally, and especially by the academy (which is developing a bad rep for ignoring excellent gay-themed work). It’s a beautiful, touching, human movie, and I do think Firth gives the best performance of 2009.

  • Haldis

    I also agree that Shawshank Redemption and Dead Men Walking are pretty amazing.

  • Hadi

    Actually saw this film around 6 months ago and absolutely LOVED it. Easily the best movie I saw in 2009. I am really happy that its winning all these awards and gaining such exposure. Really hoping that it wins the Best Foreign Film Oscar this Sunday.

  • Rahul

    I saw this last week and it was amazing. It made me amend my ten best of the year list.

  • Levi

    Das Weisse Band was excellent, saw it this weekend and planning on seeing Un Prophete next weekend avec Ma Famille.

  • Sabrina

    Tahar Rahim shines in this film. His character Malik does very bad things, but because of his nuanced interpretation of Malik, you also find yourself rooting for him. As a Francophile and avid French cinephile, this movie stands out because the “jail drama” genre is not one that the French are well known for. Also, the significance of Tahar Rahim’s success as a Frenchman of Arab descent is huge, which also builds on the justified frenzy behind this film. Anyone who has seen “Read My Lips” or “The Beat My Heart Skipped” will recognize and feel the same intensity of Audiard’s style throughout “A Prophet.”

    • Lisa Schwarzbaum

      Sabrina, I’m so glad you mentioned ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’–a Netflix must. Although, to do it up right, watch it in conjunction with James Toback’s cool 1978 melodrama ‘Fingers,’ since ‘The Beat’ is a (rare) European remake of Toback’s American original.

      • Chris

        That movie is great because of the very talented actor Romain Duris. All of his movies are amazing.

      • Shannon

        I am putting it in my Netflix queue now.

    • Andy Bluebear

      “Also, the significance of Tahar Rahim’s success as a Frenchman of Arab descent is huge”

      To a certain extent. There have been many before him, but they are mostly only allowed to be successful as 1) Athletes 2) Singers 3) Actors. Very few success stories outside that field…

  • Aaron

    I saw it yesterday with a packed house. The crowd had a lot of visceral reactions to so many of the violent moments, which made the experience that much better. Not only was the story brutal in a totally believable way, but everything from the lighting to the sound mixing seemed to have very distinct personal touches. A great way to spend a rainy Saturday evening.

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