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Gangster Reborn: A Prophet (Un Prophete)

Newcomer Tahar Rahim crafts a new kind of gangster in Jacques Audiard's critically-acclaimed—and Oscar-nommed—A Prophet (Un prophète).

A Prophet
(Un prophète), the new film by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), has already received accolades worldwide, including the Grand Prix (Cannes Film Festival), Best Foreign Language Film (National Board of Review), Best Film Not in the English Language (BAFTA), and Best Actor (European Film Awards). It's also one of the 5 films competing for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film on March 7. Finally, this weekend, audiences in the US will be able to see just what all the hype is about. Suffice it to say, A Prophet is worth the wait.


Tahar Rahim makes an astounding feature debut as Malik El Djebena, a homeless 19-year-old street kid who lands in a French prison after assaulting a police officer. The prison hierarchy is defined by nationality, and with his French-Arab background, Malik finds himself a man without a country. After an offer he can't refuse from the Corsican mafia, Malik begins to make his way as a low-level gofer, learning the ropes and listening when no one thinks he's paying attention (or capable of understanding). Their underestimation is a mistake, to say the least, as Malik evolves into a canny adversary.


In a recent press roundtable, Audiard, Rahim, and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain waxed prophetic about the 3-year screenwriting process, the morality of Malik, the significance (or lack thereof) of the title, and why they find themselves applauding Michael Haneke everywhere they go.

Why do we like characters like Malik? He’s a very charming actor, and his performance takes us through this whole journey, and he’s more toward the side of light than the side of darkness—but he’s still a gangster, and that’s not moralistically right. But we root for him! And we care for him so much.
Jacques Audiard: That’s the only way for him to survive.


Back in the days of Sergio Leone and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, there was this thing of, “There are no good guys, just bad guys, and less bad guys.” Is that what you see in this movie?


JA: Not exactly. I tend to believe that the character of Malik has a few virtues, such as positivity—he’s really on the side of life, not the side of death. He’s a criminal, but he has no avocation for being one. He’s a person who fundamentally doesn’t like gangsters, doesn’t like violence—someone who really shows the supremacy of intelligence over violence. He’s definitely not greedy. Those are virtues.


Thomas Bidegain: [After we got the screenplay from] Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, we spent 3 years adapting it, and that became A Prophet. It was a story of a small gangster that would become a big gangster, and we were not interested in that. We were interested instead in the story of a homeless guy, a guy who has nothing—he doesn’t even have the words to tell his own story. And at the end, he has a home—he has a family. It’s a complicated family, but all families are complicated. At the end, it’s more the story of a homeless guy who finds a home than of a small gangster that becomes a big gangster.


In the writing process, Malik interested us when he was learning—so it was important for us that he learned all the time, that he was eager to learn. So the rule we had when we were writing Malik’s character: everything you see him do, you have seen him learn. So if he has to kill someone, then we sent someone to teach him how to kill. If he has to do a big drug [deal], then [another character] explains to him how to do [it]. If he speaks Corsican, you see him learn Corsican.



How did you research the film?

TB: We researched a little about the reality of jail: what happens at mealtime, what happens when the mail arrives, what is the circulation inside the buildings. But the facts like how to kill a guy with a razor blade or things like that—that is all fiction.


JA: It was tiring, it was a very long process, but I wanted to work with people normally I would not work with, and I really went over things I didn’t know before. People that socially or culturally I would have never met. For me, it was really a very interesting journey.


Focusing on the writing process, how is it working with someone as opposed to writing alone?

JA: I have never worked alone. That’s why I make movies, because to make movies is starting from a very individual project and making it collective. That is the grand thing about the cinema. If not, I would be a writer, a novelist, or a shoemaker, so I could work alone.


I am very curious about the significance of the title of the film.

JA: Well, I am not crazy about that title, to tell you the truth; it has too much significance, and it imposes something on the viewer—you say, “Where is the prophet?” And I don’t like that. We saw that title with a lot more irony: very simply, Malik announces a new type of gangster, a new type of man, even.


What about the role that religion plays in the film? There are glances at it, when you see Malik walking around the prison, seeing people praying, and also he launders money…

JA: In French prisons, the Muslims are [becoming more and more important]. But there is not much more significance.


TB: When we saw the title, A Prophet, we didn’t see it in a religious way. Yes, he is Muslim, but that’s really not why the movie is called A Prophet. Maybe that’s the irony of it—for us, “a prophet” was more of a secular way of doing things, you know, a new type of gangster. Or even maybe it could be his gangster [nickname]—you know how they say, “Hey you, Longface,” or, “Hey you, Big guy”? It’s, “Hey, you, Prophet!”


JA: We were not really interested in the religious paraphernalia. We even found [another title] in English: You Gotta Serve Somebody. That was a good title, but difficult to translate in French.


There was a whole spirituality through the whole film, not religion per se, but…

TB: In the beginning, Malik has nothing—he’s a guy that starts as a blank page, a wild child. And then he makes his way through the gangsters, and his objectives, his purpose, changes during the film. First he wants to survive, and little by little, he gets a real conscience as a character. When he gets in that gunfight in the car, and he smiles, it’s like a revelation. He’s becoming a movie character at that point—he knows that he will last until the end of the film.



Is it true you built your own prison?

JA: Yes, [working in an actual prison] would not have been possible—the [warden] would have had to read the screenplay, and on page 20, he would have said, “No, no, no,” and then it would have been over. But it doesn’t matter, the question was not that one. It was that if it was in an actual jail, then there would have been a documentary temptation—the reality of the prison would have been a burden, actually. By building a set, [I was] limited to what was given, to what we built. The set was actually a courtyard, three corridors, a few stairs, and 15 cells.


Tahar, is Malik a unique character? Or is he a typical, anonymous, illiterate Arab prisoner?

Tahar Rahim: I think he is really unique, because he has that ability to adapt in a very hostile environment. A lot of people like him would have tried to run, or tried to kill [themselves]. He’s very different—he discovers his own intelligence, and he adapts himself to his environment. He knows how to use his mind—he’s an opportunist, a nice one. He’s a nice opportunist.


If he’s so clever, why was he so unformed all those years?

TR: Because he was on the street, he grew up on the street. He’s 19 when he gets into jail, and before that he was a kid. When you are on the street and you’re a kid, you just think about defending yourself, eating, drinking, finding a place to sleep. And he never had a chance to find out that he was smart.


TB: There is some ambiguity here. You could ask yourself, “What would have happened to Malik if he did not go to jail?” You know, he would die, he would OD at 23 in a squat somewhere. He would not have discovered that he was smart—no one would have told him he was smart.


So he had a good opportunity?

TB: So, actually, yeah. Prison is a school, it’s a school of crime.


JA: One guy who worked with us was part of the administration in a big prison outside of Paris. He read the script, and said he calls people like Malik “overadapted.” There are people who really spring up when they are in jail. Outside, reality is too complicated, too confused, too disperse. In prison, everything is much more simple. Their smartness can develop in this environment.



When did Tahar get involved in the process? How much influence did he have? Also, can you talk about working with him? He is the soul of the film.

JA: When we asked ourselves, “Who is Malik?” at the beginning of the writing, it would not have been Tahar. I met Tahar by accident, in real life. I ran into a couple of actors, and Tahar was with them, and he attracted my attention. When we started casting, Tahar came to mind, [but] it’s very difficult to tell yourself that the first person was the right one—it’s impossible! You cannot admit that—it means God exists. [eyes to the sky] Sorry!! Sorry!! So I had to see a lot of other actors and non-actors. The same thing happened to me on the prior film. You can’t believe it, so you have to see 30 of them.


Did you watch any gangster films in preparation for this, or do you have any favorites?

JA: It's very difficult to see films when you are working because if it's not good, you develop your ego in a crazy manner. And if it's very good, you spend 15 days in bed.


TB: We saw a lot of films. I [learned] from the gangster movies of the '30s and '40s, with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, but [A Prophet] is a long story also, compared to most gangster films, apart from The Godfather… [This one is] seven years; it's a very long story. So at one point, we found out that because it's not a rise and fall, we could not tell the story with acts, like a first, and second, and third act. Or even two acts—a rise and fall.


Actually, that's why a lot of people ask us about [a sequel], because it's just a presentation of the character, and at the end, he goes out, and now he's amongst us. It's really like that. It's really the preparation of that guy, and at the end, Okay, now he's free.


Was this part of a thematic trilogy, so to speak, with your last two films [Sur Mes Levres and The Beat My Heart Skipped]?

JA: Looking backward, it may have been a cycle. I had the feeling after this film that I had to go to something else.


The three protagonists in those films are very similar—men trying to improve their lives.

JA: I agree.


TB: The good thing is that it's always the creation of a hero, the guy who tried to extract himself from his condition.

Is he a hero, or a “hero”?

TB: No, a hero. What's a hero in a movie? It doesn't have much to with [morals]. I think it has to do with the capacity of one guy to improve himself and his environment and to extract himself from the mud.


JA: It would be another way to look at things—how many lives can you live? A hero, he will bet on his second life—a new situation.



Do you have a vision for Malik at the end of the movie? Do you have an idea for what he is when he's out in the real world?

JA: That could be the sequel. He gets into politics.


TR: What I told myself is that he's going to try to run away from everything that he built, but they'll get him. Or maybe he will have to go back to what he knows best, which is the criminal life. In order to succeed again, and then he'll have a third life.


Having a father who is a screenwriter—how much did he influence you and how did you learn from him?

JA: I am absolutely the pure son of my father. For someone like my father, writing all the time, cinema was really a profession—it was just a job, it was not an art—you start at eight and finish at six. I think that my father belonged to a generation in France who had very little respect for cinema. The fascination went toward literature or theater. So I have a very simple vision, a prosaic vision of cinema, not mystified. That's why I didn't want to go into cinema at first. First, I studied literature.


Apparently, you employed criminals to be in a lot of the scenes in this film. Did any of you have any difficulties working with them? What was that like?

TR: No, it wasn't. It helped us, really. They were very sweet, they were very good men.


JA: That's why, when you use the word “criminal,” it's very surprising.


TR: I was about to say, “No, there was no criminal in this film. They were just friends.”


TB: No, they were ex-convicts, and it's true that they knew how to behave in a jail environment.


TR: And as a human being, when you meet someone, you don't meet his past, you meet the person.


JA: And when they were there, the jail would work. They forced us to be real in the jail environment. They would set the tone. These are the smartest extras, background action that I ever had, because they were in groups and they knew how to behave.


Tahar, what did you learn from making this film?

TR: Almost everything that I know, and my experience in comedy, [I learned] from that film. I also learned how to read a script. I learned to understand the difficulty of being part of a team, part of an enterprise. I understood that usually when it looks very simple on the screen, it's very difficult to make.

I didn't want it to be too complicated. I didn't want to think about the beginning, about the middle, about the end. That's a mistake I made at the beginning of the shooting, I think. I would just close myself and become very secluded. It's important to ask the right questions—the ones that will help me in between one scene and another—and I would get answers.


What I remember about all the shooting, about the way that I built the character, [was that] you have to stay in the truth of the scenario. I had to think that all that happened before did not exist, and all that happened after will not exist: I just had to think about the moment, that's what I found out.



The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, among other awards. What are you hoping for at Oscar time?

TB: Since we finished A Prophet, what we do all the time is we go on a plane, we dress well, we go in a big room, and they we applaud Michael Haneke [the director of White Ribbon]. [Tahar laughs] And then we go back, we have a few drinks, ehh, and then it's home. That has been our life, for the past few weeks. So we're going to Los Angeles, we dress well, we're in a room full of nice people, and then we applaud Michael Haneke [all three applaud], and then we go back home. It's not bad.


JA: I don't get a prize. I have a 20-minute conversation with Michael Haneke. We are good friends, and we love his films. We have seen all of his films, and I loved his direction.


TB: And the one thing that I would like to see is Michael applauding us, but we haven't seen that yet, but maybe one day.


JA: Maybe we'll see Michael applauding, and he'll say, “Oh yeah, so you were there all the time.” We would like it.


A Prophet (Un Prophete) opens Friday in a limited United States run. Watch the trailer on



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