A Prophet (Un Prophète) (2009) – A young Arab man is sent to a French prison where he becomes a mafia kingpin.
Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives in prison for attacking police officers. This will become his home for the next six years. Malik’s vulnerability immeditaley attracts the attention of César (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mobster with the guards in his pocket and who rules the roost in this prison.
César needs someone to kill a fellow prisoner, who is about to incriminate his associates on the outside by turning state’s witness. César naturally summons the bewildered Malik and informs him that he must kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a Muslim witness, or be killed himself by César’s lieutenants. He can’t get out of this obligation; when he tries to, he is choked out with a plastic bag over his head. He will be given instruction on how to do the job, and protection from César’s crew for the rest of his term. With no choice, Malik carries out the crime and subsequently finds he rises through the ranks of the Mafia inside the jail.
The build up to killing Reyeb shows Malik learning how to hide a razor blade in his mouth. I loved moments like this, as sometimes in films we see people doing things like that with ease, like it’s a skill everyone has. Seeing Malik practice, and fail, and cut himself added so much realism to the story. When Malik finally murders Reyeb it is so riveting and stressful that it is a relief when the blood finally sprays. Then in a weird but effective move, as the film progresses we see Malik being haunted by visions of Reyeb. They even communicate with each other. Ultimately he is still not over the fact that he killed someone, and this indicates that he still has that vulnerability.
Over time, we see a change in Malik, from an innocent, little detainee to a confident boss. Malik listens closely to Cesar’s henchmen and eventually learns their Corsican language, thus becoming bilingual and moving deeper into Cesar’s circle. Although the rest of the crew still despise him and call him their ‘dirty arab‘. There are perks to being Cesar’s eyes and ears such as a television, DVD player, and a visit from a prostitute, but despite these comforts, Malik’s prison existence is still uncompromisingly bleak.
Malik earns a day pass, given for good behaviour in the French prison system, and is forced to hustle for Cesar outside of prison while doing a little multi-tasking hash dealing for himself. The jobs that Cesar has Malik doing on the outside tend to involve precarious situations but he has little choice but to do them.
However, Malik’s life outside of prison is presented as bright and exhilarating. When Malik takes a short business flight on a plane, his childish wonder is obvious and nice to see. Then watching him go through the scanners and get searched like we all do at airports is a heart breaking moment as he opens his mouth and sticks out his tongue. Prison mentality drilled into him and seeing him unnecessarily and instinctively doing this at the airport is such an emotional scene.
In 2010, the film was a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards. Whilst it didn’t triumph there, it won the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. At the 63rd British Academy Film Awards, it won a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language. It was nominated for 13 César Awards, tying it with three other films for the most nominations of any film in César history. It won 9 Cesars at the ceremony, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Suffice to say, it is a very well-loved film.
A Prophet is directed by Jacques Audiard who has earned rave reviews with his most recent film Rust and Bone. I haven’t seen that yet, but if it is anywhere near as well made as A Prophet then I look forward to it. He is certainly an excellent director and great story-teller. Unlike the Hollywood prison movies where everyone is either raped or built like a tank, our inmates here seem more normal. Just normal guys, not caricatures of people. The prison is a grim place but it just looked and felt gritty and real. A Prophet isn’t only one of the best prison movies I’ve ever seen, but easily one of the best movies full stop. Everything from the acting to the script is perfect. It has blood of course, and is a violent tale. Yet it has so much heart, and spirit, and Malik is someone I couldn’t help but root for. What an incredible performance and transition from a relative newcomer to films Tahar Rahim shows here. Do yourself a favour and check out A Prophet. Simply an incredible film, and one I can’t wait to see again.