The French have long been slavish admirers of Hollywood gangster movies, and "A Prophet," written and directed by Jacques Audiard, is the latest example of this fealty. It's about Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old illiterate French-Arab petty crook who is sentenced to six years in prison for an unspecified crime. The cast of characters may be different, but in many ways this is "The Big House" all over again.
And in addition to being an homage of sorts, "A Prophet" also has a real raison d'être – it takes the Gallic crime movie genre into new socioreligious terrain. The prison in this movie is a melting pot that mirrors the multicultural anxieties of modern France.
A nominee for this year's Foreign Film Oscar, "A Prophet" is also an object lesson in how prison can serve as a finishing school for crooks.
Malik starts out callow and inarticulate but he's smart enough to absorb everything around him. And this means serving as underling to the leader of the prison's Corsican gang, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who gives Malik a choice: either murder fellow Arab inmate Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), who is poised to give evidence in a mob trial, or be killed himself by the Corsican.
The extended sequence where Malik does the deed, secreting a safety razor in his mouth, is so nail-bitingly protracted that, in some respects, it bears comparison to the restaurant scene in "The Godfather" where Michael Corleone works up to his first gangland assassination.
Audiard puts us inside Malik's thin skin. Prison depravity, personified by César – who at one point, because of an indiscretion, threatens to scoop out Malik's right eye – is omnipresent.
And yet Malik, right under the eyes of these gang lords, not to mention the corrupt prison authorities, schools himself in how to get ahead. When Luciani arranges for him to get day passes into the outside world – supposedly for his "rehabilitation" but really to do Luciani's bidding – Malik uses the opportunity not only to further Luciani's crime reach but his own as well.
He aligns himself with Luciani's enemies and plays both ends against the middle. He stirs up racial tensions to his advantage.
As was often true of the old Hollywood crime movies, a sentimental streak runs through the corruption. Malik's best friend – his only real friend – is the soon-to-be ex-con Ryad (Adel Bencherif), an Arab with terminal cancer who spurs him to study language and economics. Ryad is the good mentor in a scenario filled to overflowing with bad ones.
Along with the sentimentality is also a fair dose of the usual crime-movie improbabilities. A murder spree perpetrated by Malik in the center of Paris in broad daylight is so far from verity that I thought I was watching a fantasy sequence. "A Prophet" may come on like hard-edged realism but in moments like these it's anything but.
At 2-1/2 hours, the film is unduly drawn out, but Rahim is a quick-silver actor who keeps us engaged at all times in Malik's upward trajectory. As in most good crime movies, we are made to identify with – and root for – the bad guy. Except, in this case, Malik keeps mutating back and forth between bad and good. He starts out a stranger in a strange land, but, by the end, he's the master of his own domain. It's a Pyrrhic victory. Grade: B+ (Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language, and drug material.)