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A Prophet: Tahar Rahim

We talk to the rising star of the brutal existential prison drama that is being lauded as one of the greatest gangster films of all time

Jacques Audiard’s brutal masterpiece A Prophet is one of those rare celluloid wonders that feels both intensely vicious and incredibly humane. On the surface, a prison movie that runs at over three hours long sounds like an achingly long haul, but A Prophet is utterly gripping throughout, and it's being lauded as one of the greatest gangster films ever made (it won the Grand Prix at Cannes and swiped Best Film at The London Film Awards). The accolades have a lot to do with the enigmatic brilliance of its fledgling star Tahar Rahim. This striking new talent plays an unschooled French-Arab that gets his seven-year education at the ultimate school of hard knocks, and it’s testament to his searing portrayal of gangster-in-the-making Malik that he is already being tipped for an Oscar. It's true that A Prophet is of its genre and comparisons with Gomorrah abound, but to tag this film merely as a gangster flick doesn’t do it any justice. In a larger sense, the film holds up a crystal clear mirror up to the racial divisions that plague modern society. Malik is caught in the crossfire between his Muslim heritage and the Corsican gang that rule the prison, and it’s precisely this tension he manipulates to come out on top. With real prisoners taking on many of the parts, the film feels uncompromisingly real, and some of the scenes (such as the one where Mailk emasculates a fellow prisoner with a razor blade he has concealed in his soon-to-be bleeding mouth) are beyond difficult to watch. On a bitingly cold January morning in London we caught up with the actor to talk prison, racism and acting chops…

Dazed Digital: What was it like to work with real prisoners?
Tahar Rahim:
 It was something really special, it’s almost like entering a perfume shop and coming out wearing the perfume… it was effortless in a way. There is no need to ask them any questions to get a sense of them, you just speak with them and they give you a lot of information without talking, just in the way they move and their presence. And they exactly knew what to do all the time because they really were in jail, so when Jacques would direct them that all happened effortlessly as well.

Dazed Digital: Do you think they enjoyed acting?
Tahar Rahim:
 Yeah, they really enjoyed it. They were very happy to do it. Some of them are my friends now and they are really good guys. It’s crazy because you know that they have been in jail, but they are better than so many people out there in society.

Dazed Digital: How do you think the experience of prison affects the mentality of the prisoner?
Tahar Rahim:
 It’s hard to answer this question but I think that society has to find a different kind of solution. We need prisons because there are some hardcore criminals, but I never met a guy who has been in jail that came out with a smile on his face thinking, ‘Right, that’s it now I am going to be good!’ It’s a shock for them to come back outside, and there is something different in their eyes because they have come from hell. They don’t know how to talk about it.

Dazed Digital: There is a lot of racial tension in the film. Did you ever experience that kind of racism growing up?
Tahar Rahim:
 Not really me, because I don’t look typically Arabic, but I saw some friends of mine being victims of racism. Sometimes you can definitely feel it in the air but I hope that it’s changing. I don’t think we will be able to bridge those divides in my lifetime. I sometimes feel that racism is getting worse.

Dazed Digital: What was the most difficult scene to film? I’m guessing it was the murder scene where you carry a razor blade in your mouth?
Tahar Rahim:
 That was very hard to play because there are so many things going on in the character's head in this moment – he is not a criminal but he is forced to kill because it’s him or this guy, and it doesn’t happen as he had planned so he has to improvise. Just before he does it he realises that this is the first person that has been good to him. This was very hard to portray because everything happens in the head, and you have to make the spectator understand what’s happening emotionally.

Dazed Digital: Did you have a back-story for the character?
Tahar Rahim:
 In the beginning, but I let go of it because it was a weight that didn’t help me. I just held on the idea that he was a homeless teenager who would spend 70 per cent of his time trying to find a place to sleep, or something to eat and drink. He doesn’t need to think about the rest

Dazed Digital: The film does seem to be very much about the survival instinct. It doesn’t moralise in any sense about what’s right or wrong… Did you like the character?
Tahar Rahim:
 I love the character. I mean, as the actor you are the first one who has to love him. If I don’t love my character I can’t do it. I have reason to love him as well because you see in the beginning of the film that he is a victim, who slowly learns that to get something he must use his head and not his muscle. He stopped going to school when he was 11 and then he was on the street, so who was going to educate him? It has to be himself. He is almost like an animal in the beginning. He has to find his place.