First published by EyeforFilm
“You can’t read, right? It’s not too late. There’s a prison school. You can learn in here. My idea is to leave here a little smarter.”
The man who dispenses this advice, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), will, in minutes, be dead but nonetheless his killer, 19-year-old Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim), heeds his words, and embarks on a long path of self-improvement. After all, he has arrived in prison with nothing – no family, no literacy, no faith. Even the 50 euro note that he had tried to smuggle in with him was immediately spotted and confiscated by the guards – and his trainers were stolen from him the moment he stepped into the prison yard.
In murdering Reyeb, Malik has already begun learning hard lessons in how to survive inside. To earn protection and rise through the ranks, you have to do what you are told, to know everything, to have an angle with all parties, to keep your own counsel and to recognise the perfect moment to set your cards out on the table. So while Malik does the bidding of well-connected lifer César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and endures the endless taunts of César’s Corsican gang (as well as of the Arabs who regard Malik as a traitor), he is also educating himself.
There are the formal classes that he takes in various subjects, his secret study of the Corsican language and his careful observation of all the prison’s networks and inner dynamics – and he begins building up valuable links with soon-to-be-released family man Ryad (Adel Bencherif), drug dealer Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), and the Muslim brotherhood that he had at first rejected.
By the time Malik is halfway through his six-year sentence, he becomes eligible for occasional day release – a limited freedom that enables him to bind himself ever closer to César while also pursuing his own lucrative side projects. For even if Malik came in with nothing, he wants to leave with everything.
When we first meet Malik, he is so raw and undeveloped a character that just about the only thing distinguishing him from the other inmates is the mark of an old injury traced prominently across his cheek. It is not the only point of comparison between A Prophet and Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983), both of which follow an outsider’s determined climb to the top of the criminal hierarchy, but director/co-writer Jacques Audiard has no interest in Eighties excess or megalomania.
Instead, it is calculated Darwinian cunning that propels Malik’s rise, although, for all the secularity of his protagonist’s survivalism, Audiard chooses to figure it as a religious ascension, complete with initiation, dialogues with the dead Reyeb, prophetic visions, ‘forty day and forty nights’ spent sequestered from all human company, and even a resurrection.
Still, in A Prophet there is none of the sentimental spiritualism or salvationist morality found in, say, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or The Green Mile (1999) – for Audiard does not flinch from showing the corruption, criminality and violence of both Malik and his environment, and Malik’s growing connection with the Muslim inmates is rooted not in some born-again religious fervour but rather in opportunist expediency.
Audiard elevates Malik’s coming-of-age into rather literal rites of passage, so that we can recognise his emergence into manhood and mobsterism for the miracle that it is, transcending the confines of its immediate setting, of morality and of the prison genre itself. Which is to say that for all its gripping excitement as a thriller, and its grim realism as a sociopolitical exposé of life inside, A Prophet is also concerned with the mysterious processes of education, assimilation and transfiguration.
No wonder, then, that it won the Grand Jury Prize at 2009’s Cannes Film Festival – for, much like Audiard’s previous film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), A Prophet represents an unlikely, but highly effective, marriage of arthouse and mainstream sensibilities – very easy to watch, but rather more challenging to read.