Nominated for an Oscar, winner of a BAFTA, A Prophet tells the story of young Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rehim), jailed for six years, and the amount of growing up he has to do in that time. With an Arabic name, but French allegiance, Malik is alone once inside. He cannot read or write and is totally unprepared for prison life. Every prison has “The Man”; the one who pays the guards, employs the heavies and generally has a home away from home, and this prison is no exception. His name is Cesar, and if he says jump you’d better ask, “How high” while in mid-jump.
Cesar (a standout Niels Arestrup, similar to an evil Antony Worrall Thompson) is Corsican and has a hatred of Arabs. When he hears that an important Arab witness is being held in the prison temporarily he orders a hit, but who could he get to do it? Certainly not one of his entourage — the Arabs wouldn’t let any Corsicans near him. Cesar spots lonely, innocent Malik and offers him the ultimate deal or no deal: Kill him or we kill you. Malik runs to the prison guards only to find that they, too, are on the Corsican’s payroll. If he wasn’t alone before, he truly is now. Malik has enough about him to realize that it’s better to be a killer than to be killed, and the job is messily completed. Now, at least, he has Cesar’s protection, albeit one that’s kept from a distance.
Malik is quick on the uptake, thank goodness, and the first thing he learns is to never let on what he’s thinking. He becomes Cesar’s tame Arab, making coffees for the man and his protectors, but all the while listening for bits of information that he’s not even sure how he could use. He is still haunted by the murder he committed, with the spirit of the dead man often visiting him when alone in his cell — a surreal interruption in an otherwise gritty movie. As time goes on, we watch Malik’s stature and confidence grow, all the while under the watchful and wary eye of the Corsican.
There is a new movement in French Cinema — the French are very good at creating abstract cinema movements — called the New French Extremity, categorized by extreme violence and bone-jarring imagery. Gaspar Noe’s repulsive Irreversible was perhaps the first of this style — a fearsome beating with a fire-extinguisher and a nine-minute rape scene certainly ticks all the boxes — but mercifully for us, the viewers, the style has evolved somewhat. Whilst still uncompromising, the narrative of director Jacques Audiard is at least digestible. Malik’s coming-of-age comes at a high price, a fact he’s all too aware of, but he can see no other way. He learns to read, more as an exercise in self-confidence than anything else, and tentatively begins to make deals involving hashish and favors. Cesar allows him his little business ventures but is quick to draw in the reins as he sees fit, savagely reminding Malik on more than one occasion who the boss is.
So does A Prophet deserve the praise heaped upon it? The answer, I guess, is a hesitant yes. The story is hardly original — think Gallic Scarface, as an example — and the acting is average at best, but it’s technically good and grandiose in scale. I found neither the movie nor the lead particularly likeable, but I don’t believe that Audiard ever intended them to be. All I saw was another imprisoned man, trying to get an education in prison, but learning from the wrong teachers.