Vivid images of horrific cruelty in A Prophet (Un Prophète), directed by the French cinematographer Jaques Audiard, inadverantly mock the naïve concept of a prison “reforming” its prisoners. The film follows 19-year-old Malik el Djebena, played by Tahar Rahim: While no starry-eyed Bambi – most of his youth was spent in juvenile delinquent centers – his relative innocence stands in stark contrast to his hardened fellow inmates. Malik, the archetype of a youth who has fallen through the cracks of society, assaults a police officer and is sentenced to six years in prison. Underaged, illiterate and impoverished, initially Malik is less a criminal than just a desperate kid. By the end of the film, though, his character is a whole other story.
Upon his arrival he immediately becomes a target of the older prisoners. Half-Corsican and half-Arab, Malik straddles a thin line between the two groups in a racially divided French prison. The Corsicans view him as a “dirty Arab” while the Muslim community views his mixed heritage with suspicion. His racial identity only exacerbates the bullying from prison veterans Malik faces as a young, brand-new inmate.
Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, not a day of his sentence passes before the Corsican mobster Cesar Luciano, played by Niels Arestrup, pulls him aside. Luciano, who has decided to exploit Malik’s vulnerabilities, protects him from the others while also using him as servant. From the very beginning he brusquely orders Malik to kill a Muslim prisoner and gives him the ultimatum, “Kill him or I will kill you.” Malik panics. For all his petty infractions, he finds it impossible to imagine killing a man. Luciano’s plan is for Malik to kill the man mid-blowjob by hiding a razor in his mouth and springing up to cut a neck artery. It’s hard not to wince as Malik practices in front of a mirror, cringing every time the blade slips and cuts his mouth. Casually, one of Luciano’s more callous henchmen advises: “Don’t get the blood on your shoes.” The chilling advice implies a vast experience in murder. Even though he is about to commit murder, the terrified, jittery Malik walks into his victim’s room with the demeanor of a prisoner about to be executed. As soon as Luciano picks him out, Malik’s hopes of obediently serving his six-year sentence are shattered.
By the end, prison has brutally forced Malik into manhood, ripping away all vestiges of his innocence. By observing Luciano, he learns to twist the racism and corruption of the prison to his advantage. This is not to say that his gradual transformation into a hardened criminal is depicted in an easy or simple manner. Gory aspects of the violence are shot in full and are never glorified: The murderer has a shaky aim, bodies twitch violently as they die and blood spurts out uncontrollably. A Prophet is not for the faint-hearted. Auidard spares few details as we witness Marik fight his way to the top of the prison food chain.
Malik’s character is not one usually seen as the typical lead in an anti-hero story. He isn’t flashy or charismatic like George Clooney or Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven. He isn’t as badass as Robert De Niro in Heat. He doesn’t hop aboard running motorcycles, escape the police against a dramatic backdrop, back flip over firing guns or set off explosives.
When sharing the screen with prison kingpin Luciano, Malik seems diminutive and subservient. He is shrewd, poker-faced and patient. He never hits back or talks back. But while under Luciano’s thumb, Malik begins dreaming up illicit plans of his own. There are moments when the viewer can see resentment lurking behind the blank face, and we later learn that the fast-learning, ever-submissive Malik has been keeping score.
Performances by the lead actors Rahim and Arestrup are commendable. Rahim does a wonderful job of portraying his character, using subtle body language while easily shifting between Marik’s defiant and subservient attitudes. Arestrup plays his Godfather-like character with cruel power and, at times, surprising vulnerability. Luciano, who will live and die within the prison, clings desperately to his power – his only lasting possession as fellow Corsican inmates are transferred or released.
Like many anti-hero movies, the film’s tone is somewhat detached from morality, but it is not bereft of emotion. Though the audience may be repulsed by the actions onscreen, they are drawn in to support Malik despite his ostensible lack of guilt. He has neither haunted monologues nor guilty confessions. He simply washes off the blood and continues his daily survival. Yet the film probes his psychological state through a series of unexplained dream-like clips interjected throughout the film, including Malik’s Macbethian hallucinations of his first victim. Their interpretations, like the film, are left ambiguous for the audience to interpret.