I have been waiting to see this movie for a long time; finally I got the chance to do it at the Cinemateque in Mexico City. My expectations were modest in comparison to the actual power of this film. A great story of survival against all odds, a prison-gangster movie by French director Jacques Audiard that reminded me of amazing films like Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” and Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped”. The film is brilliant and shows absolute control and expertise from the director. The film won the Grand Prize in 2009 at The Cannes Film Festival.
Tahar Rahim plays the main character, Malik El Djebena, a young Arab guy about to start a six-year prison sentence. He is a 19-year-old criminal, and this is his first time in an adult detention. Malik is very frightened, cringing almost visibly into his clothes on walking the grim corridors of jail. Over the course of the film Malik will learn to read, to smuggle, to murder, to survive. Which is why when he pauses after unloading his guns in one of the scenes, his pale face looks as if he were emerging from a kind of womb: his metamorphosis is complete.
Malik’s education is sudden and brutal. He soon attracts the attention of César Luciani ( Niels Arestrup), an old gangster who rules over the Corsican gang that controls the prison, including some guards. To protect his own, César orders Malik to murder another prisoner, also of Arab extraction. Malik has to obey the orders period. Without friends or affiliation, Malik believes he has no choice and carries out the murder with a razor blade that he’s hidden inside his mouth and which he fumbles as the blood gushes over him, his victim. The way the murder was messily, even frantically staged and filmed, the two men fighting inside a frame that can barely contain them. There is nothing exciting about the violence, and there are no beauty shots of the pooling blood. Audiard effectively turns us into witnesses to a horribly disgusting crime. This obviously marks Malik for life and we begin to understand the mental process he is going through.
The murders are not glorified, they are “necessary agents” for survival, we know Malik has become a murderer but we pity him and can’t help ourselves liking him, without the TV glory it recalled the feeling we have for characters like Dexter. All this is conveyed discretely as Malik experiences the banalities of prison along with its shocks, surrealism and spasms of weird comedy. But Malik was not meant for us to love, and Rahim’s performance, while incredibly strong, is perhaps purposefully not flashy, as movie outlaws often are. This character is after something else, and in “A Prophet” he shows us the truth of another human being who might otherwise escape from our sight because he is too foreign, or whom we might try to pity just to feel safe. But the world we make is not necessarily safe, and neither are those we leave alone to fight for their survival.
“A Prophet” is about the education of a young man within a specific social order. Perhaps is as an allegory about France and its uneasy relations with generations of Arab immigrants and their children. As usual, there is room for diverging, even contradictory interpretations. The film avoids speeches that explain everything and instead opts for a materialist approach that attends to the realities of prison life, showing how guards and porters deliver the prisoners’ food like baguettes and how Malik helps distribute illicit drugs. Malik has visions which are partly, but apparently only partly, explicable as trauma. The sweat and the machismo are very familiar from the French crime genre. The passing of contraband, the defiant songs and shouts and burning garbage being flung from the high courtyard walls surely also recall memories of Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. But this movie has its own muscular originality.
Niels Arestrup was outstanding in Audiard's previous film, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”, which is also one of my favorite films with my favorite French actor Romain Duris, also in a tense, mutually resentful relationship with a younger man but here he brings out new strains of desolation. Rahim, too, is a tremendous casting find for Audiard. The film returns us to what should be the biggest cliche: the prison film, with its cells, its shouts, its corrupt guards, the psychopathic, etc. But Audiard also revives the hidden source of our fascination with prisons. They are places of violence and fear, but also of paradoxical freedom. I highly recommend this film a must see for those who appreciate prison films.