Blending the prison drama genre with a gangster film, A Prophet is an explosive and frighteningly real crime drama that feels almost like a French version of "The Godfather." The characters depicted in the film are unlike what we are used to seeing in American cinema yet have a certain familiarity none-the-less. American prison films always hold a certain interest I think because we all understand what the prison system is like but very few of us know first hand, so there is a certain mystery and intrigue that is attached to the subject. Those elements are magnified tenfold here as we witness prison life in France and learn the stark differences and haunting similarities. I think also there is a fear that is associated with prison, no one wants to end up there, so that makes the subject compelling as well. Then when you add the Gangster element and the film becomes an expose of a crime family, that's when the movie really starts cooking with gas. Showing the dangerous side of prison life and the importance of making friends you become mesmerized by the story of this somewhat-dumb, illiterate young man who quickly rises to power and transcends his doomed situation.
The film begins by introducing us to Malik El Djebena played with charm and quite grace by Tahar Rahim. Malik has been sentenced to six years in a French prison and can neither read nor write. Malik is also half French and half Arab, which posses a problem for him in prison as it is populated by both nationalities who are at war with each other on the inside. Alone, scared and lost in this new world, Malik barely manages to survive with out any friends to protect him. Needing some group for protection, Malik eventually falls under the sway of a Corsican Mafia group led by Cesar Luciani played with razor edge sharpness by Niels Arestrup. Malik begins as the errand boy for the group, getting picked on, cleaning and generally waiting on them hand and foot. Eventually Malik wins the confidence of Luciani and the rest of the group while alienating himself from the other Arabs in the prison. When Luciani orders Malik to kill another Arab prisoner, Reyeb, Malik is torn and unsure if he can act out the task. He eventually finds the courage to kill Reyeb after he pretends to befriend him. This event will continue to haunt Malik through the course of the film as he begins seeing Reyeb everywhere.
Malik befriends another Arab man, Ryad, who also takes Malik under his wing and begins to teach him how to read and write. The difference between Malik's two mentors is that Ryad is helping him because he wants to see him survive, where Cesar is only after his own agenda. Ryad confides in Malik that he had cancer but the symptoms have now gone away and he believes he is cured. Ryad's sentence ends and he returns home to his wife and son. Cesar begins to arrange 12-hour leaves for Malik, so that he can carry out tasks for Cesar in the out side world, many of which include murder. However, unbeknownst to Cesar, Malik is smart now and along with Ryad takes his time on the outside to help build Malik's criminal empire. With Ryad's sickness returning he begins to believe that he will not survive much longer and wants Malik to take care of his family after he is gone. Malik then puts a plan into action that if successful will eliminate Cesar's power over the Corsican Mafia forever and make Malik the new leader of the group. However, many elements of Malik's plan will have to go right in order for this to happen and Malik will have to face Cesar one-on-one if he hopes to defeat him for good.
It is the movies horribly real depiction of prison life and the French underworld that makes the film so interesting. I loved the way the director uses grey, bland colors to show the stale world of prison life. You can really feel the depressing hopelessness that the prisoners must feel everyday. The acting in the film is very stunning especially the performances of the three lead men. Adel Bencheril plays Ryad and has a very nice quality about him. We as an audience trust him as much as Malik does and he always stays true to his core values throughout the film. You really become concerned with his illness and his struggle to find a way to provide for his family after he is gone. Also quite amazing in the film is Niels Arestrup as Cesar. From the very first frame he is in you can feel the actor's strength illuminating off of his performance. Barely saying a word yet you know from that first moment that he is in charge. It is a striking performance that is magnified by the contrast between the character's charm and his violent rage, something that the actor is able to juggle beautifully and with ease.
But it is Tahar Rahim's exceptional performance as Malik that makes the film work on all levels. His innocents and ignorance are apparent from the first moment yet he wears his emotions on his sleeve allowing the audience to feel every bit of his fear and confusion. Rahim has an ability to relate both the fear of the character and his inner dark-side at the same time, never allowing us to forget that Malik is a criminal and does deserve to be behind bars no matter how attached we as an audience become to his character. Writer/director/producer Jacques Audiard pulls off an exceptional task of making us care about society's underlings and does it with passion and bravado. The prison scenes are real and have an heir of danger to them that is necessary for a film like this to work. The movie was the French submission for Best Foreign film at this year's Academy Awards and has been nominated, which it deeply deserves. The film is a modern day masterpiece on some levels and is rich with social commentary. I would recommend A Prophet to any fan of American Gangster films like "The Godfather," "Goodfellas" or "Carlito's Way" and to any fan of prison dramas like "Escape From Alcatraz," "The Shawshank Redemption" or even TV's "Prison Break." I think that while this film is much different than any of those other projects I just named it carries with it elements of all of them that will be enough to keep American audiences interested in this French prison/organized crime story. If you give the film a chance you will be shocked at how riveted you become with Malik's unique struggle and rise to power.