A Prophet (Un prophete) is a French gangster film set in a prison divided largely by Corsicans and Arabs in a fight for power. Director Jacques Audiard gives a gritty and authentic look at prison life and that is full of racism and crime. The film does a good job on putting some original touches on a familiar story, making it a solid French film to see.
Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a nineteen year old who was just sentenced for six years in prison for presumably attacking cops, which he will be the first to deny. He cannot read and barely can write but can speak both French and Arabic. He comes to prison scared and timid but he does not leave that way.
Out of the blue he gets bribed with a cigarette to meet up in the yard with a man named Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Cesar leds the Corsican gang and acts as the Don Corleone inside the prison. Because of his Arab ethnicity, people assume he is a practicing Muslim, even though he is not. But that is precisely why he is sought after by Cesar and the Corsicans, a way to infiltrate the other Arabs.
This effectively means he is claimed by the Corsicans as part of their society. Without choice, Malik is told that he needs to kill a Muslim inmate and if he does not, he will be killed. Naturally, Malik is reluctant and had a few failed attempts to get out of it but Cesar and his men make it very clear that they run the place.
The next few scenes are incredibly intense as he is instructed as to how to kill the Muslim. They show him exactly how to strike him and even give him a razor blade to do it. He must hold the razor secretly in his mouth and wait for the right time to strike the victim directly across his throat. Horrific as those scenes may be, they ended up being the best in the entire film.
Over a year later he is still doing hacks for Cesar. It is clear that is has started to transform into a new person. The transformation is easy to see physically; as he gains some weight, his hair is longer and he even grows a mustache. But he also grows as a person; he learns how to read, speaks Corsican and is fearless.
After serving three of his six years, Cesar decides it is time for Malik to have a leave day. Which is a day where Malik is able to leave prison from 7am and stay out until 7pm. Cesar is powerful enough to pass the paperwork through the prison with priority and bypass the judge. The leave day is not for leisure however, Cesar has business for Malik to do on the outside for him.
What Malik does with his 12 hours of prison leave is not all just for Cesar though. He ends up scoring some drugs and makes plans with Ryad (a friend he met in prison) for selling it. He wisely does not tell Cesar this, as Cesar made it very clear that prison leave should only be for his business only. It is at this point that we truly see Malik creating his own independence and start to slowly drift away from the Corsicans. Cesar sees it too.
A Prophet is somewhat of a lengthy film, coming in at 155 minutes. There are parts that definitely drag on a bit, mostly in the middle act. But the beginning sucks you in and there is enough going on to get you through the middle until you come to the excellent conclusion. The film itself seemed is well constructed and carefully executed. Therefore, I was not surprised to find out that Jacques Audiard hired former convicts to his crew in order to get the real prison experience.
Audiard’s work did not go unnoticed. This film was nominated for an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. It won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and swept all of the major categories (9 in total) at the Cesar Awards, which is the French equivalent of the Academy Awards.
All said and done, A Prophet is a compelling coming of age story of a man that came from the outside world with very little and over time prison taught him how to not only read and write but the politics and economics of gangster life. It is an epic crime saga that provides a great story and amazing acting. Just be ready to devote some time for it, the 2 and a half hour runtime does drag a little bit in the middle.