Scott’s Review #1,034
Reviewed June 18, 2020
A Prophet (2009), known as Un prophète in the French language, is a prison drama/crime thriller made exceptionally well and told from a character perspective rather than a plot angle. Skirting any traditional genre prison characteristics, the film instead crafts a character study with the conflicting emotions of its main character taking center stage. The result is a layered, complex experience led by a brilliant acting turn by actor Tahar Rahim.
Malik (Rahim) is a nineteen-year-old French youth of Algerian descent imprisoned for six years for attacking police officers. Friendless and unable to read, he is vulnerable and coaxed into murdering a witness involved in a crucial trial. He becomes embroiled in tensions between the Corsicans and Muslims who populate much of the prison. Malik cannot forget his participation in a murder, tortures himself, and has frequent nightmares of the incident. He slowly rises the ranks of power within the prison community becoming involved in dangerous events and pivoting from meek to feared.
Largely avoided are overused prison elements common in many films of similar ilk. In other films, humor or standard dramatic situations occur that make a watered-down experience. A Prophet breathes fresh life into the prison film, albeit grisly and violent life. The film is not for everyone and is extremely dark, even brutal at times. During murder scenes, blood and guts are spilled at an alarming rate, and there ceases to exist many characters to sympathize with. Malik is the main character but is an opportunist, readily doing what he must to gain power and control. Can we blame him? No.
Malik is a complex and nuanced character who is a joy to watch and dissect. He starts his prison tenure as a naive and timid boy, illiterate and easily manipulated. Over time, he grows into a seasoned gangster becoming involved in intricate plots and messy situations. Actor Tahar Rahim successfully makes the character both likable and detestable, fleshing him out so the audience will love and hate him. This is the mark of a wonderful actor who can give complicated dynamics to the character.
Prison life is portrayed exceptionally well by director Jacques Audiard, who relays an authentic representation. It was good enough to make me never want to be imprisoned anyway. He wisely hired former convicts as both extras and advisors to flesh out the experience. Life in prison, Audiard style, is not a rosy picture, but one filled with pain, fright, and violence. The Arab population, woefully underrepresented in cinema, is given a voice.
Another subject matter, homosexuality, a popular addition in prison films is not explored. Mostly played either for laughs or providing a conveniently situational plot device, A Prophet does not need the inclusion, too much else is going on. Although a titillating prospect for many, the subject may have added a sexual or romantic angle taking away from the main point of the film, which is one man’s journey within the prison system.
Told from one man’s viewpoint, A Prophet (2009) is a triumphant French film that deservedly received accolades for its courage and realistic feel. Starring a young actor with great potential and a brave director unafraid to develop logical storytelling and avoid typical traits, one wonders what their next project will be. Violent gangs, corrupt guards, and impressionable prisoners would be a good way to continue.
Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film