By Don Simpson | March 19, 2010
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writer: Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard (screenplay) Abdel Raouf Dafri Nicolas Peufaillit
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
Condemned to six years in prison for assault of a police officer (a crime he adamantly denies), 19-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) seems to have no friends or family inside or outside of the slammer. We know nothing of his history, but the scars on Malik’s face exemplify just how difficult his pre-prison life must have been. Taking into consideration his illiteracy, it seems as though French society has over-looked (or trampled over) him. If Malik truly was an innocent person, that innocence will be wiped from his soul as soon as he enters prison. (As Rahim portrays him, Malik is a blank slate whose body and soul will be molded and shaped by his experiences prison.)
There are two distinct factions in prison: the Arabs and the Corsicans. Malik associates with neither – he is a Frenchman of North African origin but estranged from the Muslim community – that is, until he is courted (well, forced) into working for a Corsican mob boss named Cêsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Malik’s virgin assignment is to murder a Muslim Arab, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), who is scheduled to testify against a cohort of Cêsar’s. With no other option if he wishes to survive another day, Malik completes his first mission and gains minimal favor with the Corsicans (thus pitting himself against his racial peers); however, despite his allegiance, the racially-biased Corsicans still view Malik as an Arab and therefore their pet dog assigned to tend to their menial biddings.
Haunted by Reyeb’s ghost and motivated by Darwinian self-preservation, Malik promptly learns to read – thanks in part to his newfound friendship with Ryad (Adel Bencherif). Malik also learns Corsican, allowing him to learn the ins and outs Cêsar’s mob. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. And who ever said prisoners could not learn anything will in the brig?
Malik’s dog-like faithfulness leads Cêsar to arrange periods of leave for him, with the assumption that Malik will continue to work for Cêsar on the outside. Malik abides but Cêsar’s wishes, but he also takes this opportunity of partial freedom to partner with Ryad (who has since been released) and a fellow inmate – a Gypsy named Jordi (Adel Kateb) – in a lucrative drug trafficking operation. Also, while on the outside, Reyeb’s apparition begins to provide Malik with the supposedly powers of prophecy (thus the title of the film), which saves his life on at least one occasion.
Upon his release, Malik is wealthier, smarter, literate and trilingual. He has friends and business associates too. Malik even looks cleaner and healthier, like a whole person. Instead of breaking him, prison has molded Malik into a very successful and happy person…albeit a criminal.
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix and nominated for Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar, co-writer and director Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet runs a somewhat meandering 149 minutes; nonetheless, A Prophet is thoughtful film that examines literal and metaphoric prisons and how literacy and language can provide freedom and hope in even the most grave of circumstances.