Reviewed by Stefan Zeeman
A Prophet is the latest masterpiece that has emerged from France. The story focuses on Malik El Djebena, a 19 year old Arabic man who is given a 6 year sentence in a corrupted French jail. He enters the prison with no family, no religion, and no friends. His only distinctive previous home was a Juvenile hall, and is now left alone in a cruel new world.
With a 6 year stretch ahead of him, Malik is clearly vulnerable within the prison walls. At first, the naïve Malik has every intention of keeping his head down in the prison where he is noticeably out of his depth. Unfortunately the prison has other plans for him. He is approached by a group of Corsican inmates, who control everything that happens within the prison. In exchange for their protection, he must complete a series of tasks for them and soon becomes caught in the criminal cobweb that fills the prison.
He is first told to kill an enemy inmate or be killed. Upon accepting the mission, he is told must hide a razor blade in his mouth to be allowed access into the inmate’s cell where he can take the victim’s life. He must initially overcome his conscience before the he can kill a stranger. The scene is gut twistingly intense yet vividly real.
Malik is played by Tahar Rahim, who was relatively unknown before the film, but has shot into the limelight with a fantastic debut. Rahim produces a gritty performance, evolving brilliantly from timid teenager to criminal mastermind.
During Malik’s stay, the prison’s demographics change, to which he takes full advantage. He slowly gains the trust of Corsican kingpin César, whilst involving himself within a group of Arabic prisoners, who aim to take control of the prison. Battling between the politics of prison life and his own survival, Malik mercilessly attempts to climb the criminal ladder in and out of the prison. The film constructs a brilliant insight into life within a prison, and makes anything conjured up in films like The Shawshank Redemption look like a weekend stay at a Holiday Inn. The brutal dog-eat-dog world never forgives or takes a break.
Kingpin César is played superbly by Niels Arestrup. The cold hearted man slowly deteriorates to desperation as the world that he previously ruled crumbles around him. César’s evident weakness becomes Malik’s strength in his path to glory. Malik is reborn within the prison where he experiences a new type of paradoxical independence which he could not experience in the outside world. The film is made with near perfect excecution. Director Jacques Audiard produces a claustrophobic view of prison life, whilst maintaining a gripping portrayal of Malik’s rise in the prison hierarchy. Jacques Audiard won the 2005 César Best Director award for The beat that my heart skipped, a Parisian criminal thriller about an aspiring pianist. Audiard will be undoubtedly a commanding contender for this year’s prize and is certainly a name to look out for in the future. A Prophet won Best film award at BFI London film festival and Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival, and it’s clearly visible why. This powerhouse production contains a potent formula for a fierce prison thriller that’s definitely worth seeing.