A Prophet (FR: Un Prophète) is a French crime thriller which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards. Despite running over two hours and a half, this movie is a compelling character study of a young man who progressively get an education in the confines of a prison. This is no redemption story, he does not learn to become a lawful and productive citizen. Instead, he teaches himself the ins-and-out of being a hardened career criminal during his stay in a seedy prison controlled by the Corsican mob where even the guards are paid for.
We meet our main protagonist, a petty criminal, as he is admitted to prison for a 6-yr sentence after assaulting a police officer. Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a 19-yr old illiterate French-Arab who is initially clueless and timid, only wishing to keep a low profile while serving his time. Without “protection”, the spirited but solitary Malik soon catches the attention of Corsican mob leader César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) who offers to take him under his wing if the young inmate murders a fellow Arab prisoner named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Malik doesn’t get much of a choice in the matter and after he accomplishes the grueling act, he is taken in as part of the group of Corsicans. Originally the “dirty Arab”, Malik progressively rise in the ranks from doing menial jobs to conducting “business” meetings outside the prison on behalf of César. Simultaneously, Malik learns to read and write, secretly learns Corsican to spy on César and his cronies, and plans his life after prison. He slowly transforming himself from a fearful new inmate to an ambitious career criminal and this ultimately clashes with César’s own ambitions.
The best thing about A Prophet is how subtly the characters grow over the length of the movie which spans Malik’s 6-yr sentence. Malik is not someone you would expect to make a great main protagonist but the relatively unknown Tahar Rahim sells it. Starting at the bottom of the food chain with an older Arab inmate wanting sexual favors from him, Malik has to fend for himself and in doing so, he grows and becomes a man. Not the man you would want to be in a lawful society, but a man nonetheless. Think of this as a prison version of a coming-of-age movie.
A very subtle and brief scene that spoke volume about the movie was the one in which Malik goes through a routine airport search. After walking through the metal detector and getting a routine pat search, Malik reflexively open his mouth and stick his tongue out like he has done so many times during his stay in prison. Tahar Rahim gives a quiet star-making performance here, allowing us to empathize with a brutal, industrious and ruthless character while infusing him with just enough vulnerability and innocence to keep us engaged and sympathetic. Malik isn’t a bad person, he just does whatever he has to do to survive. Eat or be eaten they say. Niels Arestrup is simply excellent as the brutal and unpredictable César while Adel Bencherif plays Malik’s lone friend in the outside world.
Most of the action takes place in the bleak and claustrophobic concrete cells of the prison but meticulous director Jacques Audiard mixes the visual drab of the cells with trips to the outside world and ghostly hallucinations by Malik of the inmate he kills early on. The movie also sidesteps the vast majority of prison life cliches. The violence and sex in the film comes and go in quick but disturbing flashes of graphic, messy and unglamorous sequences unlike anything you will find in mainstream Hollywood mobster movies.
A Prophet could use being about 20 minutes shorter and being a little less convoluted. However, this grim tale of a young man’s “education” is one that you can’t miss as it is the best gangster/prison thriller in years.
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Notes: Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material. 155 minutes.