A Moment in Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009)
It began, perhaps, the moment the deer flew into the air. Upon impact, when car and flesh collide, we move from within the cabin to a view outside. Shot in slow motion, the carcass rises with a lightness, unexpected because of its weight, and we’re allowed to watch each muscle move through ranges of motion that feel orchestrated (though we’re not sure by whom) before the deer slams—conclusively and ungraciously—to the floor. There’s a feeling of importance, maybe even mysticism, and it’s the result of exceptional cinematic craft.
The scene comes from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009), and it marked, for me, the moment when I began to think the director was exceptional. Within the car, tensions grow, as Malik (Tahar Rahim), handcuffed, finds a gun in his face and struggles to explain his survival. As he stumbles over his words, punctuating his almost-answers with long pauses and false starts, a non-diegetic Arabic chorus unobtrusively begins to sound. The slow motion shooting starts soon after, while still within the car, and forces us to view commonplace objects in new ways. A triangular road sign that warns of deer glides slowly past the windscreen and ripples in a window on the side of the car. Borders usually relentlessly rigid, like those of the sign, begin to reveal newfound flexibility. We’re reminded of Malik’s earlier dream (in which he sees such a road sign), and the red of its edge becomes startlingly vivid when we connect these dots. We’re aware that something significant is about to happen, though we’re unsure exactly what.
The hue that presses at the boundaries of the sign is recast in the messier smear of the deer’s blood on the shattered windscreen. A rippling line breaks into a puddle as we, with the characters, reach a moment of realization. Caught in a flood of revelation, we understand that Malik’s dream is prophetic, and that we should pay more attention to road signs. Things are connected in mysterious ways, and yet, as the deer, now dead, gracefully slides upwards, we realize that we can know no more than that. Lattrache (Slimani Dazi) gives voice to our concerns when he asks, “What are you? A prophet, or what?” The desire for definition (and the understanding of a situation that follows an awareness of exactly who—or what—is involved) arises from witnessing a series of events happening that should not have taken place. Malik should not be able to predict the future. Lattrache is stunned, and we’re left with a new conception of how A Prophet operates.
The supernatural is hinted at earlier, as Malik is visited periodically by the murdered Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Like the Arabic chorus, the figure approaches quietly. He is not, in other words, a self-consciously ethereal ghost. He sits or stands but never floats. We slowly realize that smoke casually escapes from the open wound in his neck, the scratch that caused his death. There is no fanfare; we’re allowed no terror or slapstick. Reyeb absentmindedly pats away the hellfire that singes his shirt with a gesture that’s rooted in the mundane. He could easily be brushing away a few rogue crumbs, rather than a sign of his damnation.
Audiard teases us with the suggestion of realms beyond the visible—and the presence of connections between separate things—and then quickly pats it away, allowing it to resurface later in different forms. So while A Prophet is a stunning crime film, it is also, more generally and more importantly, a staggering work of cinema.
I’ve written elsewhere about Audiard: I’ve recently discussed the blending of genres in—and Hollywood’s haunting of—Read My Lips; I’ve also focused on the complex use of music in The Beat That My Heart Skipped.