A Prophet starts when the nineteen-year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) is sentenced to six years in prison. Almost immediately Malik, who is of French-Arabic decent, gets caught up in prison politics between the two major groups the Corsicans and the Arabs. Malik has no friends on the inside and no one on the outside to help him out and send him money and whatever else he might need. He is basically unprotected and even if you have just gleaned your understanding of how things work in prison through movies you know that can’t be a good thing. The Corsicans, lead by the white-haired patriarch César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) make a bid for Malik’s services to kill a witness transferred to the prison for a trial involving one of theirs.
The witness Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) has already offered Mailk weed in exchange for sexual favours and that is how Malik pings the Corsicans radar. Malik has no choice other than to comply or he will be killed himself. Luciani tells him that he will either murder Reyeb and wind up under Corsican protection or they will kill him. The murder itself is portrayed very differently from what we are used to in this genre. It is messy and complicated and very up-close and personal. Malik manages to do it, but the desperation and fear is so obvious that you, as a viewer, really feel it in the pit of your stomach. That’s where this story really takes off.
Malik has to walk a tightrope between the Arab clique in the prison and the Corsicans who have taken him under his wing. The hard-eyed and very palpably dangerous Luciani is, at the start of the movie, the main power in the part of the prison where Malik finds himself. He is surrounded by about twenty henchmen, fellow Corsicans, and he is completely in command. He is suitably paranoid and suspicious. He is also palpably dangerous, despite his age, and beats on Malik at more than one occasion. His hold over the prison stretches to the prison staff who he obviously has either bought or coerced. This character is is the archetypal “old king” of the realm and Malik starts as his dogsbody, cleaning his cell and making him coffee. Slowly Luciani’s power gets diminished, first by the fact that several of his lieutenants get released due to a political amnesty. It also becomes obvious that Luciani is never getting out, since he has committed what his lawyer calls “foolish acts” in prison.
Malik is on an opposite trajectory. He starts out as a nobody who has nothing, no money, no connections, no friends. He is a survivor and he adapts to his circumstance doing whatever is necessary. There is never any sense that he is a hardened criminal to begin with, but once he has killed a man, something changes for him. To me, the main point seems to be that he does not want to be powerless, like he is when he first enters the prison, and is forced into doing things against his will. Malik can neither read nor write but he gets the chance to learn in prison. He also picks up Corsican by hanging around the Luciani and his men. He is clearly intelligent and I get the sense that he uses his time to think about what to do next instead of just drifting along on the current of violence, drugs and drudgery.
Malik also gets into business for himself with one of his inmates “The Gypsy” (Reda Kateb) selling drugs to the other inmates. This in possible in part because of Luciani who uses his contacts to get a day-pass for Malik on the condition that Malik does some business for him on the outside. Malik takes care of Luciani’s errand, which involves one of his Corsican cronies and a gun pointed at Malik’s head.
The thing is that Malik is seen as an Arab by the Corsicans and a Corsican by the Arabs. He is in-between and trapped, but he continuously works on getting to a place where he has some kind of leverage and autonomy.
This is a low-voiced and understated tale that takes its time, spanning the six years Malik spends in prison. It has no voice-over, no exposition other than the bare-bones background given in dialogue. It never underestimates the viewer’s intelligence. You have to make up your own mind on what you are supposed to take from this. It is also cinematographically well done, portraying the claustrophobia of prison life through the mise-en-scène. The rare occasions when Mailk is let out for a day are in such stark contrast with the day-to-day in prison that you can sense the impact it must have on Malik, and the double-whallop of the violence he is forced to execute on Luciani’s behalf when he is nominally free is all the worse for it.
Malik rises to power through his dealing on the outside and his promotion to Luciani’s lieutenant on the inside. He knows that he could not have been where he is if not for the Corsican’s protection, but he never really stops chafing against the bonds and you get a very clear idea that he learns from his mentor, even if the relationship between them is volatile, to say the least.
There are subtle little details in this when it comes to the cinematography that really enhance and augment the narrative, like the shaky fade that happens a couple of times when Malik is badly stressed, or the fact that Reyeb stays with Malik, haunting him until they develop a strange kind of friendship. These things are never at the expense of the story being told and the story is rich and many-layered. There is the fall of the old king and the rise of the prince in the face of adversity, yes, but there is so much more going on that this story stays with you and the relatively realistic way in which it is told makes it all the more interesting. There are lots of prison-move stereotypes, but even when they are used they are used in new and inventive ways that makes it feel fresh. I particularly like that the fact that the tired cliché of the evil prison warden is completely absent here. The prison staff are just doing their job and they mostly do it politely.
I can’t recommend this movie strongly enough. It is so sharp, so intelligent and made with such care that is lingers well beyond the first watching. The actors give splendid performances, especially Tahar Rahim and Niels Aresturp and there is a lack of trite and tired genre-clichés that make it easy to stay on your toes as a viewer and that makes the story hit harder.
A Prophet (original title: Un Prophète) (2009) directed by Jacques Audiard stars Tahar Rahim (Malik El Djebena), Niels Arestrup (César Luciani), Adel Benecherif (Ryad), Hichem Yacoubi (Reyeb), Reda Kateb (Jordi), Jean-Phillippe Ricci (Vettori), Gilles Cohen (Prof), Antoine Basler (Pilicci), Pierre Leccia (Sampierro), Foued Nassah (Antaro), Jean-Emmanuel Pagni (Santi).Powered by Sidelines