Lauded with deserving praise since screening at the Cannes Film Festival last May, A Prophet is a quietly epic film with a Shakespearean lilt from director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped). This is not an obvious Godfather-like tale of a young man’s rise in the criminal underworld, but something much more symbolic and dreamlike.
The 19 year old protagonist, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a new inmate at an unnamed French prison. Having been convicted of assaulting a policeman, he is too young for juvenile detention and is sent to an adult prison. Here he survives and violently comes of age by submitting to the unforgiving demands of Corsican mafia patriarch, César Luciani.Blood, violence and death are around every corner, with tension creeping up every minute under Audiard’s direction. Death as an act of sacrifice is a constant motif in the film, and Malik is constantly in death’s presence, accruing blood on his hands as a means to survive. It is a case of kill or be killed. This is most obvious in a scene where Malik is suddenly held at gunpoint, suspected of having carried out an assassination in prison. At this crucial point, the tension is relieved by an incident of accidental animal sacrifice, one that in the eyes of the captor removes the stain of murder from Malik despite his clear admission of guilt. The next scene looks out from a beach hut onto the beautiful white sand, blue sea and palm fronds swaying in the wind. Seated on the left of the open hut is Malik. On the right, the raw and bloody animal carcass readied for cooking. It’s a fantastic piece of symbolism. The film intertwines a credible narrative of an interred Corsican mafia, with scenes of visually poetic introspection by Malik, alone in his cell. Here he is visited by the ghost of a dead inmate who in true Shakespearean tradition haunts him, advises him, and forms part of the madness, dreams and visions through which Malik catches fleeting glimpses of future events and earns the ‘prophet’ moniker. Malik’s identity is an issue for him and for us. He says he has no known relatives, and he shrugs off questions as to whether he is French or Arabic. His ability to be all things to all people allows him to dance the line between the two major gangs of inmates. Even when he has his own lucrative prison career, Malik is still subservient to César’s petty requests for coffee and other menial chores. César is puzzled by this and asks why he still does it, but Malik shrugs it off. It is clear that even though the prodigal son shines brighter, he still desires to have the protective father figure, no matter how brutal. In myth as in life though, the prince nearly always usurps the king. A Prophet is a hugely involving film with incredible tension to match any thriller, balanced by peaceful and thoughtful interludes. There is no message here, no heavy moralising, it just is. That is a brave thing to do given the subject matter and Audiard should be commended for directing with such a light touch.