Tahar Rahim, star of A Prophet
From Clash, May 2010.
It’s early o’clock on a Sunday morning, yet Tahar Rahim is already in fine spirits. With a broad gravitational grin, the tactile actor flirtatiously grabs his semi-redundant translator’s leg, rubs my back like an old buddy and repeatedly bursts into performances of Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling. Sure enough, the night did indeed turn out to be a good night as less than twelve hours later A Prophet was awarded the BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language.
The real Tahar Rahim is a far cry from his brilliant performance as the film’s lead character Malik, a prisoner dehumanized into violence by his status as an incarcerated outsider. But Malik isn’t a generic antihero. As A Prophet unfolds, he embarks upon a journey of development with elements of morality and redemption that conflict with his often violent actions.
“What’s incredible about this character is the way he thinks. When things happen, he knows the solution. He’s got head and balls,” explains Rahim, pausing only to chuckle at the absurdity of his simile. “He’s courageous and smart. It’s rare.”
The finer details of Malik’s life prior to imprisonment are only hinted at. “You see the scars on his back during the shower? That’s his past. Maybe his parents have beaten him, we don’t know. You can imagine what you want, but we know that he left school at eleven and became a delinquent.”
Rahim’s research for the role included interviews with several convicts. “They’re interesting because they don’t talk,” he intones. “They choose their words. When they talk, they’ve really thought about what they’re going to say.” That mannerism is reflected throughout the film. Upon Malik’s arrival, the power is centred around characters that are firm and near silent. As Malik ascends this unsettlingly confined hierarchy, he too becomes enshrouded in such behaviour.
Full of memorably visceral scenes, A Prophet’s intelligence is watermarked in a seemingly innocuous scene. After Malik passes through an airport’s metal detector and prepares for a search, he unconsciously signposts his institutionalism by poking out his tongue – for the prisoner, a daily routine used to detect concealed weapons – and inadvertently duplicates his internal existence in the wider world. “It’s a very important scene in the movie,” he says, slowing his speech to underline the point. “Outside is like inside. What you learn in jail, you do on the outside.”
As for the importance of the film’s success on his own career, Tahir remains grounded. Success, he says, has come as a big surprise. “I don’t know if when I’m sixty I’m still going to be surprised,” he concludes with that beatific grin radiating once more. “For me right now, it’s still a big surprise.”