A french-arab delinquent is tried as an adult for the first time in his life and lands in prison. His background, briefly alluded to, leads the viewer to believe that nameless petty crimes peppered his young adulthood. The only details of the current offense are dispassionately recited by a guard while our character undresses in the prison’s entrance. Assault of a police officer. Tahar Rahim is a perfect cast for the role of Malik, as the actors tough, adolescent frame bespeak an innocence tarnished when coupled with scars and bruises from a loveless childhood. And the audience definitely needs this visual reminder of a tortured past because Director Audiard spends no time dwelling on it.
Running at just above two and a half hours, “A Prophet” focuses on Maliks rise to power within the prisoner hieararchy and his eventual “redemption” upon release. Deemed the French “Godfather,” critics delight in the measured pace of the character’s ascent; the portrait of a beaten down survivalist that navigates through the corrupt Corsican power base within prison and eventually topples it. Malik is a clever survivalist, teaching himself how to read and write behind iron clad cell doors, discreetly learning Italian while eavesdropping on his mob overlords. He exploits a friendship with another French-Arab prisoner, now released, to set up his own drug smuggling cartel and quietly invest in a power base of his own. Sounds pretty standard, no? One can see the Coppola, Scorcese comparisons.
Yet our hero does not emerge from his trials as unscathed as the american gangsters of yore. The concept of power corrupting the human condition is an old chord that still rings true. But as a Michael Corleone slowly pursues power and simultaneously descends into madness, Maliks corruption is punctuated and traumatic. The Corsican mob lord forces our young protagonist to assasinate a new prisoner that is willing to testify on behalf of state. I’ll quote Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian here as he does a phenomenal job of describing the plan.
“The plan is that Malik must kill his victim, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) with a razor-blade concealed in the roof of his mouth. Pretending to offer him sexual pleasure in his cell, he must work it out with his tongue and push it forward between his teeth while his face is beneath eyesight, and then stand up and cut the man’s throat. The scenes in which Malik must practise doing this in front of the mirror, retching and spitting blood into the sink, are the stuff of pure, scalp-prickling fear.”
The plan manifests itself awkardly and Malik is forced to wrestle the man down in the cell, narrowly escaping his own demise. The director spares no realist detail when it comes to the execution. I don’t care how tough or demented you are, you’ll find yourself white-knuckled and sweating in the cinema. The murder scene stays with us as we watch a sudden ruthlessness develop in the unnatural killer. There is no redemption for such a heinous act, and Malik seems to absorb the monstrosity within himself, channeling it into a relentless drive to escape his position in this world.
A compelling main plot line is obscured by wild, seemingly senseless flights of the directors imagination. Malik’s murder victim continues to reappear as a gruesome apparation, befriending the youth after months of torturing him in nightmares. The nightmare sequence itself is beautifully shot; Audaird shows a flair for impressionist cinematography, but exhausts it with the persistent visual references to the ghost. Malik’s acceptance of such an unearthly visit might speak to his growing comfort with death, both delivering it and receiving it.
Yet, one need look no further than scenes of physical abuse between Mob-overlord and Arab lackey, between Arab-lackey and showering, defenseless inmates to glean the same type of growing comfort with violence. Granted the re-appearance of a theoretical “soul” layers the movie with subtle religious overtones, it does little to distract us from Malik’s purely material, carnal rise to power. The drive to “provide a better life for myself” is a secular desire, one that we as the audience can relate to regardless of faith, given a universal empathy for the tragic Malik.
You want pure crime film, classic gangster bravado and brass barrell in your mouth, stick with “The Godfather.” But Malik is an incredible character, and the on-screen relationship with Corsican boss Cesar (Niels Arestrup) is one of mutual dependence and suspicion, incredible to watch.
If you want “kill or be killed”, in all its wrenching desperation, read “This way to the gas, ladies and gentleman” by Tadeusz Borowski. Audiards tale is somewhere in between. Not just a compelling prison film, it is most definitely worth a watch. I just wish he would have left the cumulative half hour of apparations reappearing with their throats slit on the cutting room floor.