It has been a long time since a modern crime drama as momentous as A Prophet (French: Un prophète) has graced the screen, but director Jacques Audiard has proven that patience is a virtue. Like many other groundbreaking films that featured ethnic organized crime such as The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface, A Prophet should now be mentioned alongside them. This film follows one prisoner’s growth from a lack of identity to the moment he claims his power in the cell block.
Malik, 19, has been sentenced to six years in prison and enters alone and alienated. With no choice from the prison’s dominate Corsican mafia group, led by Luciani, Malik must murder another prisoner in one of the most memorable, brutal and realistic scenes in the film. Afterwards, he is under protection of the mafia who procures 12-hour prison leaves for him to carry out more missions. As Malik continues to gain trust of both Luciani, a Muslim group prisoners, and learn to read, he is able gain more and more power within in the prison.
A Prophet is a film that matters. Ethnicity is a strong factor, one that ultimately influences Malik’s goals and actions. This film appears to give an icon-like status to those who lack an identity in another culture. Much like the 2009 French film Welcome, A Prophet portrays the confidence and struggle of a late-teenaged Middle-Eastern male. Using friendships and intuition, Malik is able to use his intelligence to gain power and rise from an invisible man to dominance.
Malik bows and serves Luciani with little hesitation, yet Luciani continues to reduce Malik to just a “dirty Arab”, provoking Malik’s choice to gain power rather than be a victim. Malik’s rise is well-calculated, after all, that’s how the Corsican prison mafia trained him. He entered insecure and scared, he now reigns with confidence and knowledge.
The scene that I referred to above is one of the pivotal moments of the film. Malik is forced to murder another prisoner, Rayeb, in one of the most gruesome murder scenes in recent film history. His execution is sloppy and insecure, Malik whimpers in the corner as his victim suffers and flops to death. Hereafter, Malik is haunted by Rayeb, the guilt is carried with him through the rest of his journey.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film are the subtle moments of prophecy. On one of Malik’s 12-hour prison leaves, he finds himself in a moment of most certain death in a car with enemies. Within in seconds of losing his life, he mentions that there are animals up ahead. Sure enough, the car hits a deer. The deer is sent flying and the car spins to a halt. How did Malik know? A simple look over to an animal crossing sign and a good guess.
What intrigues me about Malik’s character is his choice to assume control in prison rather than find a way escape and re-enter society. Inside the walls he has an identity, one he formed by his hard work, moral or not. Outside he would become the invisible man again.
In the last scene, we see an new Malik arise from the cell block into the recreation area with fellow Muslim prisoners. Luciani, now alone and less than half the man he used to be, attempts to approach Malik. Instead, he is given a firm punch to his stomach by one of the Muslim prisoners. At this moment, we now see the power behind Malik, a new king reigns.
A Prophet was nominated for Best Foreign Oscar, but lost in a very tough year. It won Cannes Grand Prix, Best Film at London Film Festival and won a BAFTA for Best Non-English film. For any cinephile, this film is a must for your own entertainment and cinematic vocabulary.