Maybe the French crime drama “A Prophet” is actually fulfilling some prophecy, having won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes, two BAFTAs last weekend, and a most deserved Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. Co-written and directed by Paris-born auteur Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “Read My Lips”), this ambitious epic tracks the trial-by-fire experienced by Malik El Djebena (talented newcomer Tahar Rahim), an illiterate but clever 19-year-old Arab who, at the start of the film, has just been sentenced to six years in prison. Quickly seduced into carrying out seedy jobs for an old Corsican mobster (Niels Arestrup) who owns most of the guards, Malik learns the rewards of humility, sneakiness, shifting alliances and having a haunted conscience, ultimately growing in ways prison wasn’t intended for. While Audiard and Rahim were at the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke with them via translator about their mutual fears, the first time they were bitten by that bug called cinephilia, and how their film differs from Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.”
The title is mentioned very late in the film, in reference to Malik’s unique foresight to a random accident. Why did you decide to name the film so specifically on this moment or characteristic?
Jacques Audiard: If I had another title, I probably would have used it. But also I was scared. You know, prophecies are something that you’re waiting for — the things that leave something that hasn’t yet been answered, that hasn’t yet come. I don’t like titles that are too specific. “A Prophet” has several meanings. There is the prophet who brings the word of God, and the prophet who simply announces news. In this case, Malik, as a prophet, is carrying a new message. For me, he is a prototype of a new kind of human being.
“A Prophet” is such an intense, rigorously filmed epic. Were there any significant shared challenges you had to overcome as collaborators?
JA: We had to tame our fears. I think for Tahar and myself, the fear was transformed into something else, something more positive. Otherwise, we never would have succeeded.
Tahar Rahim: The fear is actually what propelled us forward, what drove us to complete it.
What do you mean by fear?
TR: Well, there was the fear of failure, of not being able to pursue the idea. For me, I was afraid of not being able to do what Jacques was asking me to do.
JA: When you write something, you have an idea about what it’s going to be, of how the story is going to develop and unfold, and then you’ll choose your actors and they’re going to try to deliver that vision you had. You sit and you see things before they actually come into being. Then, when you shoot the film, there are lots of things that you thought you were going to use or happen, and then they seem inappropriate or idiotic or misplaced. If things go well, as was the case here, then you’re working towards something that you never anticipated, something you could not have envisioned. But that comes from giving yourself away to the film. You have to accept the fear of not knowing entirely what you’re doing.
TR: It’s so freeing to stop being afraid of making mistakes, to let yourself go.
Tahar, you’ve said that your parents weren’t surprised when you told them you wanted to be an actor because you spent so much time at the cinema. What were some of the specific films or performances that inspired you?
TR: I saw every single film that came out because I was killing time there. It wasn’t just a specific pursuit. It was entertainment. It was [some time] after that when I really started liking it and paying attention, and then I wanted to see more, to be a part of it. I wanted to be in them. So many films and actors inspire me now. It could have been a problem, actually, in the film we’re talking about today because learning how to act is so many things at once. I learned that with Jacques. Before Jacques, I learned a little bit when I was in school by watching films, watching other people, and thinking about the relationships and situations I’ve experienced. But the problem is that you can also unconsciously reproduce what you’ve seen before. In some cases, that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad.
Can you remember any films that made you realize they could be more than just entertainment?
TR: The first time I realized that? That’s such a long time ago!
JA: You can’t remember? Because I remember exactly when I had that. I even remember where I was sitting and what the theater was like. For me, the film that made me think, “Oh, a movie could also be this?” was “Le joli mai,” by Chris Marker. I was 18, and it was the summer at the Cinémathèque in Paris. There were only four people in the theater, but people go to the cinema because it’s air conditioned in the summertime.
TR: I’m digging in my brain, and I don’t know if I had a “Eureka!” moment. It was a very gradual realization, but a film that really made an impression on me was something that I saw at the Médiathèque when I was in Montpellier. It was that Marcel Carné film “Le jour se lève” with Jean Gabin. We had seen lots of film excerpts when I was at school. We talked a lot in film school about Orson Welles as if he invented moviemaking with “Citizen Kane,” so it wasn’t until I saw this movie that I realized: “They say Orson Welles invented the flashback, but Marcel Carné was the first one to use it in a film.” That was a big realization for me.
[The translator adds: “And now Jacques is talking about Julien Duvivier and the lies of film school…”]