(Sony Classics) Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bakhti. Directed by Jacques Audiard
Prison is a human cesspool. We put all of our bad apples in one basket and expect every apple we throw in afterwards to somehow come out good. It doesn’t happen that way with apples, nor with people.
Malik El Djebena (Rahim) has been in trouble with the law since he was very young. Now, his crimes (apparently he attacked a police officer although it’s never stated outright) have landed him in an adult prison for the first time, with a six year sentence. He is understandably nervous, being neither an intimidating physical specimen nor a particularly violent person.
He is street smart rather than book-learned. He cannot read and he can barely write much more than signing his own name. The only thing he has going for him is a highly developed survival instinct, something that will serve him particularly well in this prison which is not controlled by the guards or the warden, but by a troll of a man named Cesar Luciani (Arestrup). Cesar is the leader of the Corsican crime faction in the prison, reporting in turn to shadowy people outside of the prison.
Cesar walks with impunity in places other prisoners dare not go. He is surrounded by bodyguards and has a cell phone from which orders come down, and one has; Reyeb, an Arabic criminal who will soon be testifying in court will be housed in the prison until the trial. Cesar needs to make sure that the man doesn’t make it to court.
Unfortunately, Cesar’s tentacles don’t extend far beyond his own immediate world. Reyeb is being housed in a wing where prisoners, including newcomer Malik, are kept “under observation” until it is deemed they are fit to join the general observation, after which he will be moved to the wing where the Muslim prisoners are kept, and where he will be beyond Cesar’s reach.
Cesar knows he must strike swiftly while the prisoner is in the temporary wing, but if he uses one of his men to do the deed, it would likely be traced back to him. When the newcomer shows sexual interest in Malik (who showers in the stall next to him), Cesar realizes he has his solution.
Malik is given no real options; he has never killed before, but he must kill this stranger or else Cesar will kill him. That Cesar will carry out that threat is made very clear to Malik, who is reluctant to cross this particular line. A lieutenant instructs Malik in how to conceal a razor blade in his mouth and how to strike suddenly.
When the time comes, Malik, given a terrible choice, chooses self-preservation. He performs the deed, but botches it; still, he gets away with it because Cesar had the foresight to make sure that the temporary wing was cleared of people when Malik was doing what he was supposed to do.
This act earns Malik protection from the Corsicans and alienation from the Muslims. Malik becomes a quick study, learning the ways of criminal success and develops a little mini-empire of his own, thanks largely to his only friends Ryad (Bencherif) and the gypsy stoner Jordi (Kateb). Furthermore, Malik has visions of Reyeb, visions that give him guidance on what to do, which leads people to wonder if Malik is something of a prophet. Still, it is a brutal world he exists in and the closer Malik gets to Cesar, the more dangerous things become.
This was one of the most acclaimed movies to come out of France last year, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and sweeping the major categories at the Cesars, France’s version of the Oscars. Speaking of the Oscars, it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, losing out to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes.
This is a stark, grey movie with little color; the bleakness of the prison surroundings prevents that and that’s mostly where this movie takes place. It is characterized by some startling performances, particularly Arestrup as Luciani. His eyes are cold, reptilian but filled with intelligence. He is a man prone to fits of sudden and brutal violence, but has enough self-discipline to keep that rage in check. He has the arrogance of a man who knows he is in absolute control, yet is so unprepossessing physically that you might think him the prison librarian.
Rahim plays Malik as a bit of a cipher. Malik rarely displays much of what he’s feeling or thinking, and while he may be illiterate, he is still a clever man. He realizes that his key to survival is to blend in with every faction and become indispensible to both sides, which he does with a vengeance. He also observes everything he can and winds up learning enough to not only succeed but thrive.
One of my big issues with the movie is that it is almost two and a half hours long – I’m not sure if it’s a mindset endemic to gangster epics, but this is a movie that really didn’t need to be that lengthy, particularly the last twenty minutes. It seemed to me that the points the filmmakers were trying to make could have been made a lot more simply and in a lot less time. Perhaps it’s my American impatience, or the fact that by the end of the movie I reeeeeally had to use the restroom, but I found myself wishing the movie would reach its conclusion, which is a bad place for a movie to be in.
That’s why it’s not getting as high a rating as it probably deserves. Audiard has crafted a gritty and realistic look at French prison life and it isn’t a pretty picture as well you might imagine, but then again it’s not supposed to be. Leo Tolstoy once wrote that you judge a society by how it treats its prisoners, and A Prophet will give you plenty of food for thought.
REASONS TO GO: A gritty look at French prison life; at its best recalls some of the best moments of Coppola and Scorsese.
REASONS TO STAY: Too, too long – the last 20 minutes could have been easily have been condensed into scenes totaling about two.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brutal violence including at least one blood-soaked murder, disturbing images and much male nudity along with some scenes of sexuality. This is not for the squeamish and certainly not for the young ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Audiard met Rahim when the two shared a ride from another film set.
HOME OR THEATER: The claustrophobic atmosphere of prison life is more suitable for the small screen.
FINAL RATING: 7/10