Malik El Djebena is a 19-year-old repeat offender who is thrown into a French prison to do six years for assaulting a policeman. As a non-religious Arab, Malik is shunned by both the Muslims and the Corsicans who both have a strong presence in the prison, locked in a long-running power struggle. Malik is illiterate, young, fragile and covered with bruises and scars from previous altercations. A Prophet’s shadowed and noisy opening thrusts Malik out of the darkness and into the harsh light of the prison in a way that suggests he is ‘born’ into the prison like a vulnerable child. Despite his chances of survival looking grim Malik soon takes his first steps in his transformation as a master criminal when the dominant Corsican prison gang force him to kill for them.
Directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) A Prophet is essentially a gangster film with a number of distinguishing differences. For a start, Malik’s criminal ascent occurs while he is in prison but thanks to the corrupt networks within the prison, which also allow him the occasional day pass, he is able to operate successful activities in the outside world. Also, apart from his initial act of forced violence, Malik’s success is predominantly due to his studious self-education and cunning rather than displays of power and might.
A Prophet’s social realism style separates it from the more traditionally glamorous or sensationalist gangster films so that its portrayal of somebody marginalised by French society becoming indoctrinated into criminality functions as a genuine social critique of both the prison system and prejudices within France. However, A Prophet also contains several effective non-realistic touches that border on surrealism, which clearly identifies it as a work of fiction as opposed to the cold reality of organised crime that is represented in the equally excellent Italian film Gomorrah.
A Prophet is an extremely gripping and exciting film. The scenes leading up to moments of violence are incredibly tense and even through we know what is about to happen, the violence in this film is genuinely shocking. The almost-unknown actor Tahar Rahim portrays Malik as a likeable yet unsettling anti-hero and his transformation from a virtual child to a gangster is convincing and frightening.