It is hard to say whether The Prophet is an adaptation or not. Kahlil Gibran’s prose-poem The Prophet tells of the fictional prophet, Almustafa, who is about to depart from the city of Orphalese. Before he can get away, the people of the city stop him, and ask him to share his wisdom with them one last time. The rest of the book consists of a series of sermons, the prophet expounding on whatever matter the people request. Opinion is divided as to the quality of these sermons, transcendental and mystical in tone: the work is a cult classic in some quarters, scorned as trash in others. I tend towards the latter camp. They are well-written enough to appear wise at first glance, but any additional glance destroys this impression. It can be seen as wisdom only by those who stubbornly ignore reality. However, Gary Tarn’s production is not a visual rendering of the above, all that the poem provides is the soundtrack.
Tarn’s Prophet is constructed from footage collected on his travels around the world, from London, Milan, New York, Serbia and Gibran’s own country,Lebanon. Each stretch of footage changes with each sermon, and the subject of the sermon dictates the content of the footage being shown alongside it. For example: for the sermon on ‘Work’ we are given a Lebanese labourer in the process of making a shoe; for the sermon on ‘Clothes’, in which Almustafa seems to be putting forward a creed for mass naturism, we are given a host of naked cyclists in a London demonstration (I never did work out whether they were demonstrating on behalf of cycling or nakedness).
The cinematography is excellent throughout, Tarn having collected and expertly edited a great diversity of material. It is always interesting, because it is always real. The Prophet in this sense has a similar appeal to Ridley Scott’s 2011 film Life in a Day. In these films the human interest is genuine, because nothing is simulated: we are seeing life as it actually is. Initially, this documentation of reality seemed at odds with the metaphysical nature of the book, but it must be considered with the soundtrack. We do not hear what we are seeing, but instead the images are accompanied by Gary Tarn’s own composed score, with Thandie Newton narrating the text. Tarn’s music is not something I would ever listen to on its own, but here it is perfectly suited to the purpose, providing a lovely mellow sound in the background to the images and the text. Newton’s narration was so good that it had a magical effect, one which I could never have predicted: I was at times able to tolerate Gibran’s insipid words. Admittedly, the events on the screen were so engrossing that the words tended to fade into the background, but Newton’s voice was still present, and possessed such a sonorous quality that it almost seemed to add to the music. On the occasions when I did tune into the words, she delivered them very well, and if anyone insisted on reading the book I would send them to Newton’s narration instead; lifeless on the page, in her hands the words are somehow given a spark. The narration and music are never given centre stage, and are clearly present to enhance the visuals rather than anything else, a task they perform admirably.
Given my opinions of the book, I never expected to enjoy this film, but Tarnhas created something wonderful: a film that lends credibility to the notion that the purpose of art is to focus one’s attention on life, rather than to provide an escape from it. I will never open the book again if I can help it, but I would gladly see the film another few times.