Do you believe in the corrective potential of prison life? If yes, I can guarantee that you will be plunged into despair by watching Jacques Audiard's gritty French prison thriller "A Prophet" (2010). The familiar tale of "prisoner learns the ropes" slices through various gangster cliches to hit raw nerve. It has a ring of truth, whether it's concentrating on the racial politics of the exercise yard, the prison economy where a life is worth a box of cigarettes, or the steady, strong undertow of intimidation that can turn a young inexperienced petty criminal into a remorseless killer. Film lovers will definitely love "A Prophet" not only for its numerous laurels -- including Grand Prix at Cannes -- but also for its most impressive performance of Tahir Rahim (his feature film debut).
PlotThe movie opens with Malik El Djebena(Tahir Rahim), a 19 year old trouble-maker entering a correctional facility. He is about to begin his six year sentence for attacking a law enforcement officer. He is a illiterate. He has no family or friends. Inside the prison, Malik's status as a loner makes him a easy prey for gangs. Even though he is an Arab, Malik was first sought out by a Corsican gang -- lead by a ruthless man Caesar (Niels Arestrup). Caesar compels him to kill another newcomer, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). If he does the job, he will have the gratitude of the Corsicans or else he will be killed. Malik prepares to murder Reyeb by sticking a razor in his mouth. He clumsily attacks Reyeb and, after much struggle, slices his jugular.
Now the Muslims find him a bit untrustworthy and the Corsicans call him a "dirty Arab." But, Malik soon gets embroiled into the thick of a power struggle that stretches beyond the walls of the prison - something he comes across firsthand during the movie's second half, when he has an opportunity to take single-day leaves for good behavior.
AnalysisThe movie wholly belongs to Tahir Rahim, who as Malik gives a performance that grows in mystery and cool reserve scene by scene. He looks like a distant relation to "Godfather's" Michael Corleone and "Scarface's" Tony Montana. We see the wheels turning behind Rahim eyes — calculating the worst thing that can happen — a beating here, a little time in solitary there. We see a cunning plan, and his sense of tribe, growing with each move. If Pacino's performance is more internalized and low-key, Rahim's approach to the character is one of slow-burn intensity. Niels Arestrup, makes Cesar a crime lord both unnerving and fatherly. His eyes portrays the joys and sorrows and the final scene makes the once savage powerful man to an amazingly ordinary and pitiful.
Director Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain fills the film with colorful supporting players and vivid recreations of prison life. The movie works because Audiard doesn’t hit us over the head with moral lessons. He assumes that viewers, like Malik, can reap the essence of what’s important by watching and studying, and he keeps the movie's thematic material deeply interwoven into the narrative, which means he avoids declarations and speeches and obvious signs pointing to “what it all means.” When Malik walks through the security check in airport, he quietly opens his mouth, a natural instinct for a young man who has spent his formative years in the prison. It's these tiny moments, which serves as the representative of a film so comfortable in its intelligence and so assured in its style that every little detail counts.
"A Prophet" is ultimately a brilliant character study and what egresses at the end is something of an enigma: We’re not certain what to make of him and the choices he has made. That final shot, despairingly suggests that one can never truly escape prison life, or the monster it makes you.
A Prophet - IMDb