Of course, it didn't take a gift of prophecy to see all this coming. I anticipated as much when I sat down to talk all-too-briefly with the film's enthusiastic director Audiard, co-writer Thomas Bidegain and the irrepressibly charming (though surprisingly quiet) lead actor Tahar Rahim.
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Michael Guillén: Let's begin with the film's title. I'm aware, Jacques, that you have already stated that the title harbors no religious implication?
Jacques Audiard: Yes and no.
Guillén: Notwithstanding, I was reminded of the Biblical adage that a prophet has no honor in his own country and interpreted the prison as a country in which Malik must earn respect. So if Malik is a prophet earning respect in this prison, what is the prophecy?
Audiard: There is no prophecy whatsoever. As Thomas and I were writing the script, we detected there would be this irony with regard to the film's title; but, Malik is a prophet in that he is a "new" man, the one who is exploring ahead of the others, and announcing what's coming. As we were writing the script, we weren't sure and hesitated about the film's title. It looked and sounded good and—though now it seems obvious—it wasn't always so obvious.
Thomas Bidegain: At first we wanted to call it To Serve Somebody.
Guillén: After Bob Dylan's song "Gotta Serve Somebody"?
Guillén: A Prophet operates on different tonal registers. The film shifts between an almost documentary-like naturalism, a stylized realism, and the phantasmagoric. Can you speak to your decision to shift between these registers?
Audiard: A Prophet was proposed as strictly a genre film at the beginning; but, this was not enough for me and Thomas. We were not satisfied. Tahar's character had no depth. So that's what Thomas and I focused on: to develop the character of Malik and to give him more depth. This necessitated changing the type of genre of the film.
Bidegain: The moment Jacques and I decided the main character Malik would be haunted by the ghost of the first man he killed, then the form of the film changed. Imagine if Tony Montana would be haunted one by one by all the people he had killed? Maybe that would have made him a different person? Maybe he would have killed less?
Guillén: Well, since you bring up the ghost, let's talk about him. Why is he on fire?
Audiard: Because he is angry. It's like in cartoons when a character gets angry and steam comes out of his ears.
Guillén: [Laughs.] That's a funny image! I hadn't quite associated Malik with Yosemite Sam! What intrigued me about the ghost was—though you say he was angry—he didn't seem to be a vengeful ghost. He didn't seem to even judge Malik for having killed him. In fact, by all appearances, he seemed to be helping Malik adjust to prison life?
Audiard: He's a well-meaning ghost.
Guillén: A Prophet is strengthened for being alloyed with genre. Why do you love genre and why does it work for you?
Audiard: There are many things I love about genre: the entire imaginary; the whole universe that comes with it; the acting styles in specific scenes. Genre allows me to reach spectators more quickly. As a director, genre allows me to work faster. One of the things that comes with genre is a clear definition of good and evil. That's useful. Another aspect that comes with genre is the definition of the hierarchy. Though the character of Malik in A Prophet comes off as something of a hero, this is not so common in French cinema. His characterization is not the usual way that men are depicted in French cinema.
Guillén: One might even argue that there's a certain amount of improbability to Malik's character. I'm not the only reviewer who—as much as I love the movie—finds the premise somewhat improbable. The speed with which Malik achieves power and rank in the prison suits the genre but doesn't seem wholly believable. Even you, Jacques, have mentioned elsewhere that the character of the Corsican boss César (Niels Arestrup) is improbable in the role of the prison king. I like how you described him: "He's an ogre in charge of a kingdom of spiders." How does that improbability further the truth of your film?
Bidegain: May I answer this? The film is a fiction so, of course, it is improbable that an uneducated young man who can't even read or write would learn Corsican from the prison boss in six years. He probably wouldn't be able to accomplish that even in 20 years, that's for sure. But that's why the prison as a setting is so interesting: it's a microcosm. It's like a magnifying glass on society. All the conflicts are tougher, faster, as well as simpler. All the problems that would complicate progress in the outside world—problems of integration, racism, the sociological problems—within the genre become justified for territory, power, or money. The improbabilities within the genre make the action simpler.
Guillén: One aspect I enjoy about the "heroes" in your movies, Jacques, is that I can identify with them. They're not too glamorous… [I turn to Rahim] Please don't take that the wrong way. What I mean is that they're not overly macho. They're smarter than that. I'm aware you look for certain masculine qualities that differ from the usual cinematic portrayals of male heroes, especially within French cinema. What was it that you saw in Tahar that you felt suited the man you wanted in your film?
Audiard: It was, indeed, my intention from the start that the spectator should be able to identify with the character of Malik and to the universe of the jail around him. It would have been an easy choice to cast muscular hunks in the roles of the convicts; but, I decided not to. Admittedly, when I started shooting, I became nervous because it seemed all the actors were skinny and tiny. [Laughs.] For a moment I thought I had made a mistake. But I have a taste for short, skinny men and women on which my camera concentrates.
Guillén: [To Rahim] So you're a skinny, short person, eh? [Rahim laughs.] Let me ask you a question, Tahar. As an actor, what did you give Jacques that he did not expect?
Tahar Rahim: I can't answer that because I don't know. All I can tell you is that I gave him all my trust. I gave him everything I had.
Audiard: When you work with an actor, it's a relationship comparable to taking a lover. You learn to open up, to surrender, you're not quite sure when it's going to happen that you'll be able to trust each other, but when it happens you can bet he will hit you under the belt.
Introductory photo of Audiard, Bidegain and Rahim courtesy of Brian Brooks at indieWIRE. Cross-published on Twitch.