Prison has made for a frequent setting in crime cinema, and with Jacques Audiard’s Grand Prix-winning A Prophet, his first film since the acclaimed The Beat That My Heart Skipped, we are introduced to a merciless French jail overrun by Corsican mobsters. Following the prison career of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a North African teenager sentenced to serve six years for an unnamed charge, Audiard presents a squalid, claustrophobic world within the prison walls, heaving with hatred and intolerance.
From the very beginning of his prison sentence, without family or funds on the outside world, Malik feels vulnerable in the ultra-machismo environment. Despite his North African origins, a lack of education leaves him alienated from the Muslim community, and when he is noticed by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mob boss, as something of an outcast, Malik is forcefully informed that he must kill the prisoner named Reyeb or be killed himself.
Malik commits the gruesome murder and, as a sign of the Corsicans’ control of the prison, he receives no punishment. From this point on Malik is said to be “protected”, and performs menial chores for the mob as an Arab outsider. Haunted by visions of the murdered Reyeb in his cell, Malik decides that he must educate himself if he is to fare better than his victim.
Learning to read on the prison programme and absorbing the Corsican language through his duties with the mob, the outsider starts to pick-up details of Luciani’s work. It becomes clear that, with the right connections, he could achieve Luciani’s status himself, and as he becomes ever more involved in drug trafficking outside of the prison walls, danger grows within.
Tahar Rahim’s performance as the altogether sympathetic, and yet utterly ruthless, Malik El Djebena is a wonder to behold. From a nonentity devoid of hope, Malik develops a depth of character that thrills the audience; his commitment to self-preservation and his intelligence in adversity is invigorating. His is an underdog story that you support all the way.
And for allowing the story to play out so well praise should be given to Niels Arestrup as the fearsome mob boss Cesar Luciani. It is a supporting performance of great intensity and spirit, even when he shows his vulnerable side.
Yet the highest praise belongs to Jacques Audiard. With A Prophet he has created a protest statement of great realism, a rich character development piece, and a crime drama that offers non-stop entertainment. There is plenty here to keep you gripped for 150 minutes.