A PROPHET (France, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard
CAST: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A new arrival in a French prison is recruited by the ruling Corsican gang to carry out hits and traffic drugs. Over time, he earns the gang leader’s confidence and rises in the prison ranks while secretly devising plans of his own.

The French film A Prophet, winner of the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, plays like the origin story of an alternate-universe version of Tony Montana.  A young, uneducated criminal, Malik (Tahar Rahim), arrives at a French prison and is almost immediately recruited by the ruling Corsican gang and their leader, César (Niels Arestrup), to kill another prisoner, an Arab, who could testify against César.  César’s method of guaranteeing Malik’s participation is ingenious: “Now that you know the plan, if you don’t kill him, we kill you.”

Malik will spend the rest of the film learning the ins and outs of criminal activity within the prison walls and occasionally outside as well, a process explained with great attention to detail.  For instance, for Malik’s first hit, he must seduce his male target into lowering his defenses while they’re alone.  However, since he knows he’ll be frisked first, he must hide the only lethal weapon he can find, a razor blade, in the only place it won’t be found AND be readily available: tucked inside his mouth between his teeth and cheek.  Ouch.

A Prophet doesn’t rush.  It takes its time with its plot development and character building.  It seems to me that the best films set in a prison adopt this strategy, or they should.  The deliberate pacing gives us time to settle into the world of the prison and the prisoner.  It creates the sensation that time is passing a little more slowly, which is exactly what any prisoner must feel every day.  The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind.

Malik’s slow conversion from timid newbie to trusted assistant in César’s gang to eventual dangerous adversary is never less than captivating, but in a weird way…like watching a hungry tiger stalk its prey.  The filmmakers are careful to give Malik human foibles.  At one moment, we watch Malik carrying out a task for César.  The next, he’s studying French in an adult literacy class because he never learned to read.  Or we see him alone in his cell where he occasionally has matter-of-fact conversations with the ghost of his first kill.  I particularly liked the scene where the ghost would predict random events in the courtyard outside of Malik’s prison window.

The idea is to make sure we never lose sight of the fact that, whatever Malik is becoming, he was and is a real person.  There are questions being asked in A Prophet about the efficacy of a prison system that, instead of rehabilitating criminals, seems to embed them deeper into a criminal lifestyle by the time they’re released.  Sure, Malik is a character in a movie, but how many other convicts just like him are chewed up and spit out of the prison system?  I was reminded of a scene in another prison film, Brute Force (1947), when a prisoner is working in the prison mechanic shop working on a car.  Someone asks him, “What have you learned?”  The prisoner says, “I’ve learned that, when I get out, I don’t wanna be a mechanic.”

As A Prophet works its way towards its Godfather-esque ending, Malik’s chilling evolution reaches the point where, with the help of his contacts with former inmates, he can orchestrate the kidnapping and beating of a rival drug dealer outside the prison walls who threatens his own plans for getting out.  Nothing Malik or César did seems outrageous or implausible in any way.  It’s scary how easily they can pull the strings of so many people inside and out.

I am rambling, but I’m simply at a loss to efficiently explain how effective this movie is in its portrayal of the rise and rise of an eventual crime boss.  In the final scene, as a caravan of black vehicles follows a key character as he walks out of the prison for the last time, a chill came over me as I realized the implications.  It’s a brilliant final curtain on a character every bit as chilling as Michael Corleone or Tony Montana.

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