Here’s a paradox for you: In its purest form, cinema exists to depict violence in all its physical/spiritual power, yet its increasing media proliferation has stripped it of impact. We’ve become desensitized.

Jacques Audiard’s remarkable “A Prophet” goes a long way toward restoring our proper response to on-screen carnage.

Thirty minutes in, there is a scene of violence as terrible and shocking as I’ve ever seen. The context: fresh at the start of his six-year prison sentence, our lead, Malik, is forced to murder a prison snitch to garner protection from a powerful Corsican mob boss.

The result: worse than you could imagine. Malik almost botches the hit, and a quick kill turns protracted and messy.

As horrible as the raw physical data – the razor blade concealed in Malik’s mouth, the great gouts of blood, his target’s final death throes – is the weight Audiard grants all aspects of the crime.

We see Malik agonize days before the hit, his sense of morality clashing with the concept of murder. Audiard keeps the camera tight on Malik during the crime, never sparing him (or us) with the luxury of a cut or wide master. And we need to be close so we can see the bits of Malik’s soul vanish after his victim stops breathing.

It’s the key scene in the film. In some ways, this is a very standard piece of genre work – the fall and rise of a criminal mastermind. Audiard elevates it with unconventional details and a bracingly gritty aesthetic, but tonally, “A Prophet” plays in the same sandbox as Jimmy Cagney in “The Public Enemy” or Al Pacino in “Scarface.” Except for that murder. Audiard never lets us forget the psychic cost of Malik’s underworld “success.”

That enables him to a) force us to question our affinity for screen baddies like Cagney and Scarface (we see how they get power in this movie, and it ain’t pretty), and b) make a scathing comment on the institution of imprisonment rehabilitation.

To wit: Malik entered jail a minor felon and leaves it something much worse. To paraphrase another great prison movie, he “had to go to jail to become a criminal.”

There’s not a lot of violence in “A Prophet,” but all of it carries that same queasy charge. No one, least of all the viewer, gets away from it clean.

“A Prophet” is coming soon to the Nickelodeon in Portland.

 

Josh Katz is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.