Jacques Audiard’s French prison drama A Prophet is among the good film moments in recent memory, I would place near the top of my list and one of my best in last five years for sure.
This gripping and immersing organized-crime thriller is a 2009 French film directed by Jacques Audiard from a screenplay he co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit. It stars Tahar Rahim in the title role as an imprisoned petty criminal of Algerian origins who rises in the inmate hierarchy, as he initiates himself into the Corsican and then Muslim subcultures.
A Prophet won accolades winning the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival; London Film Festival, and BAFTA for Best Film in a foreign film category. Besides, winning Cesar’s including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
The protagonist is a Frenchman of Arabic descent, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old who is sentenced to six years in prison for an unidentified crime. Early on it is easy to feel for him, as the loner becomes a pawn in the Corsican mob’s plans to assassinate a fellow inmate. Malik has to decide whether to kill or be killed.
Alone upon his arrival, he falls under the sway of Corsican mobsters, led by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who enforces a brutal rule. The prison is divided between two main factions- the Corsicans and the Muslims. Malik keeps to himself. When Luciani forces him to be the unwilling assassin of Reyeb, a Muslim witness, Malik gains the protection of the Corsicans in spite of his origin. Malik serves as a low-level servant to the Corsicans, who treat him with contempt. All the while, he is haunted by visions of the murdered Reyeb. When the bulk of the Corsicans are transferred or released, Luciani is forced to give Malik more responsibility. Having secretly learned Corsican, Malik acts as Luciani’s eyes and ears in the prison. When Malik earns the privilege of day-long furloughs outside the prison, Luciani relies on him to conduct his business outside.
Ryad, a Muslim friend, teaches Malik to read and write, besides introduces him to Islam religion and the rich heritage of Islam prowess, and so leads a close friendship among them. In turn acquaint with the other two Muslims, Tarik and Hassan, and increasing his power within the prison. Malik also becomes involved with a prison drug dealer, Jordi. When Ryad gains an early release due to testicular cancer, the three partners organize a drug-running enterprise. But when Ryad is kidnapped by the drug dealer Latif, Malik tracks down Latif’s partner inside the prison. He kidnaps his family and forces Latif’s gang to release Ryad.
When Luciani discovers that Malik is using his layoffs for his own personal enterprise, he attacks him. Malik is sent to meet Brahim Lattrache in Marseille, another Muslim, who is involved in a deal between Luciani and the Lingherris, an Italian mafia group. Lattrache is bitter toward the Corsicans for the murder of Reyeb and holds Malik at gunpoint. When Malik spots a deer warning sign, he remembers a recent dream of deer running in the road. He tells his kidnappers that they are in danger of hitting a deer, and they suddenly do so. Lattrache is impressed by Malik, calling him a prophet and agreeing to do business with him instead of Luciani, even though Malik has admitted that he killed Reyeb.
Luciani believes there is a “mole” in his organization and decides to use Malik to assassinate Jacky Marcaggi, the Don of the Corsican mafia, for secretly dealing with the Lingherris. But Malik and Ryad have their own plan for Marcaggi; they kill his bodyguards and dump him in a van with his enemy
Vettori, Luciani’s henchman. Malik takes refuge at Ryad’s house with his wife and young son. Ryad’s cancer has returned; his decision against more chemotherapy leaves him just six months to live. He gets Malik’s promise to take care of his family when he’s gone.
Upon Malik’s return to the prison, he joins the Muslim faction of the yard. When Luciani tries to approach him, two Muslims intercept and beat him. On the day of his release, Malik is met by Ryad’s wife and son outside the prison. They walk off together, followed by a vehicle convoy carrying Malik’s new associates.
Coming from the generation of leading film maker (Michel Audiard father of Jacquis, has been a director of repute from the 1940s until his death in 1985). Jacques’s skills look so distinguished. A Prophet, being his fifth movie as writer-director, he’s established himself not only as a far more distinctive movie-maker than his father but as a leading figure of his generation. Looking at his films, he emphasizes an opulent construction of stories, deeply ironic stories about crime and character. Besides, his films are culturally provocative in statements, given France’s anxiety about the visible signs of Islamic identity.
A Prophet is consistently brilliant in detailing the prison world. Audiard’s team of art director Michel Barthelemy and cameraman Stephane Fontaine creates a starkly intense jail environment that’s actually a set which is close to be believed so real, in its troubled walls and comfortless spaces of prison- Jacquis demonstrates a masterpiece here.
This movie also tries as much of a barb to Islamic as to European sensibilities. The film further suggests that there’s no real law in France, just a reign of universal corruption in which the man who uses his wits may emerge looking purer than his peers – may come, indeed, to be taken as a prophet. Compelling and immensely watchable though- There’s so much incident crammed in here that the film constantly threatens to burst its bounds, the background clique intrigues are utterly perplexing. Still, this is a film of considerable brilliance that contrives to get us rooting for a man who, in his time, is a betrayer, a plotter, a willing stooge – and makes him emerge as a heroic figure. In the end, you feel that A Prophet is only incidentally about the education of a criminal, and fundamentally about the making of a politician.
A Prophet could be read as an interpretation on how French society deals with immigrants, allowing them into the fold only so long as they’re willing to be exploited, then getting upset when they circumvent the system and make their own way. Mainly, though, this is a well-told pulp story, packed with memorable characters and incidents, and one that deals smartly with the realities of large- and small-scale law-breaking. A Prophet is thoroughly absorbing, exciting, and even poetic. It’s a full evening’s entertainment I bet.