Upon viewing A Prophet at the 2010 Ellensburg Film Festival, I had no idea what the film was about except for that it garnered widespread acclaimed and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar earlier this year. I now understand where all of the acclaim came from. Jacques Audiard’s film is a blistering, prison/crime drama that proves to be a fine example of Social Darwinism: a survival-0f-the-fittest story with an undertone of bigotry and power struggle.
Our story starts with Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) – a nineteen-year-old delinquent of French and Arabian decent – beginning his six-year prison sentence for attacking an officer. In the beginning, Malik lives in total fear. He’s always keeping an eye out while at work with apparel, and when he’s out on the lawn. When he gets beat up early on in his sentence, it catches the eye of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican mob boss serving a life sentence. Even with life in the joint, Cesar still holds power. He has connections with the guards and all the inmates, even still connections on the outside. Needless to say, the Corsicans run the prison.
Cesar sees Malik in a struggle to survive, and like any mob boss, he presents Malik with an offer he can’t refuse: Kill a fellow Arab by the name of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) and we’ll protect you, and if you refuse or fail, we’ll kill you. “I can’t kill anyone” utters Malik. We believe it, but we also know human nature, and under these forced circumstances, Malik does kill Reyeb. The scene is very powerful, because the conversation held before his death, Reyeb tells Malik that it’s not too late to become educated, and that had it not been for Malik’s struggle for survival, he would have found a friend in Reyeb.
After the murder, Malik takes Reyeb’s words by enrolling in the schooling program in the prison. We also get some very powerful scenes of Malik alone in his room with his vision of Reyeb with him in the room. Going back to the story, about a year or two into Malik’s sentence, most of Cesar’s men are up for parole, leaving only him and a small number of guys you can count in one hand in his crew. Cesar has yet another proposal for Malik: he wants him to be his eyes and ears, let him know everything that is going on, and to become his errand boy. Malik excepts, but his fate starts to change. He starts to learn the system, how to be a leader, and is slowly becoming more and more educated. We no longer see the scared, young man we saw at the beginning of the film, but we see a man who’s more confident and more self-aware of his surroundings. He starts to establish his own drug trafficking business on the outside when he acquires leave days, while slowly establishing his own crew but trying to keep it under wraps and stay under Cesar’s good graces.
By the end of the film, we see a complete character transformation. Malik has now established a name for himself and his brothers-in-ties of Arabian dissent. There’s a complete shift in power from the Corsicans to the Arabs. I should probably stop now for I feel I have given away too much. However, what’s important is the attention to detail, not the plot outline. Tahar Rahim’s performance as Malik should have garnered him an Oscar nomination as well (though the stupid Academy hardly ever gives acting nominations for foreign films). His brilliant tour de force from a scared boy in his first adult prison sentence to a mob kingpin of an Arabian mob is a marvel that fires up the screen with passion. Niels Arestrup is also outstanding as the mob boss who even though is serving life in prison still feels the need to hold onto the shred of power that he holds, even if it may not be worth much. You don’t have to understand the conflict between the Corsicans and the Arabs to understand A Prophet (because I am not even sure of the conflict), you just have to understand human nature and garner the patience to watch a movie entirely in subtitles. Once you have done these things, then I suggest renting this beast of a movie as soon as you can.
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Written by Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard, Abdel Raouf Dafri, and Nicolas Peufaillit
Stars Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi
MPAA: Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material
***1/2 (out of four)