Dir: Jacques Audiard
Sony Pictures Classics
By now, the prison movie genre is well-worn with its expected tropes and scenarios. The old inmates torture and cajole the new fish, forcible and violent rape occurs and crooked guards take bribes so the highest on the food chain can perpetrate similar crimes on the inside, business as usual as on the outside. While prison films run the gamut from exploitative to sentimental, the tension wears thin when so much of the same becomes tiresome. Even one of the most popular films of the last century, The Shawshank Redemption, treads on the conventions established by prior films that take place in the slammer.
However, director Jacques Audiard embraces all of these conventions in A Prophet and still manages to create a film that is tense and crackling with fury, a visceral experience that threatens to leap from the screen. A Prophet focuses on a new inmate, Malik El Djbena (Tahar Rahim), a young Muslim arrested for fighting with the cops. While Malik hopes to spend his six years inside keeping a low profile, he is soon forced by the Corsican mob to assassinate another Muslim prisoner, who is about to serve as a key witness in a trial. Punctuated with bursts of horrific violence, A Prophet is not only an exciting prison film, but a metaphor for the rise of France’s Arab population.
Audiard does not seem interested in making an action film, although A Prophet does have its tight moments. Instead, the director focuses on the ascendancy of Malik from quiet new guy up the prison hierarchy as he becomes involved with César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the locked-up Corsican mob boss. At first shunned by the prison’s Muslim population for siding with the Corsicans, Malik attempts to find a way not only to survive in a world where anyone can be killed, but to do so without compromising his roots.
While it is easy to be sympathetic for Malik, it becomes difficult to like him as the film progresses. As he transforms from the humble new guy to boss, perpetrating crimes on both the inside and outside, Malik transcends racial politics, bucking both the Muslims and Corsicans to further his own ambitious ends. But A Prophet is not the Arab-Gallic Grand Theft Auto. Rather, Auidard simply puts his characters in a fish tank and poses a Darwinian fight for survival.
A Prophet only really stumbles during its fantastical moments. Malik is repeatedly visited by the shade of one of his victims and even has a few moments of clairvoyant visions that later come true. While Audiard is perhaps establishing Malik as the film’s titular prophet, these moments feel forced and the ghostly visitations flirt with cliché. While some may see these moments as lyrical ambiguity, they bog down the gritty realism that runs from the harsh walls of the prison to the film’s down and dirty look.
Rahim does a remarkable job as Malik, delivering a performance that is both visceral and compassionate. Not much backstory is given, yet Rahim’s understated acting is expressive enough to convey hurt without the need for useless exposition. He is a hypnotic burning point that keeps us riveted for the film’s long running time, who is both a victim and tormenter, criminal and prophet. Audiard makes it clear that no one escapes unharmed.