[Actual rating 95%]
A Prophet directed and co written by Jacques Audiard is a unrelenting and matter of fact depiction of prison and gangster life set in some of the most shadiest parts of Paris society. While the movie depicts prison and gangster life it is truly about one thing only: Survival. Gaining new allies and being able to bribe and satisfy crooked authority figures is the basis between life and death, once you are deemed worthless, you are as good as dead simple as that. One must keep their wits about them, become cunning, smart, and plan if they want to survive especially if they are in the sights of a cold Corsican mob boss.
Nineteen year old Malik El Djebena (played superbly by Tahar Rahim) is just that kind of man who must become and acquire all those skills aforementioned if he intends to survive. He is young only 19 of French of North African descent, illiterate, and has been sentenced to six years in prison for assaulting police officers, and he is alone. Everything is out of his favor as he is plunged into a hellish nightmare that he must now find a way to survive what will probably be the most grueling experience is his life. Malik's race was mentioned earlier, after all this is a prison film, and race plays an important role in prison films (and gangster ones as well) as it does in real life prisons. The prison is dived into two sections, the Muslims and the Corsicans and with pale skin, mixed race (half Arabic), the look of frightened child, and not being very smart as well Malik will not fit so easily with the other inmates who are either one race or the other (Arabic, Corsican, etc).
Malik keeps to himself however, he has caught the attention of the Corscian mob boss Cesar Luciani (played magnificently by veteran French actor Niels Arestrup)whose cold and calm gaze is enough to frighten possibly even the most harden criminal. Cesar has been in prison for a long time now and later in the film he is informed that is just no way he will ever see the light of day again because of the callous crimes hes committed. Whether it be pity or Cesar just finds him to be useful he decides to "help out" Malik by giving him a proposition: kill an Muslim witness or be killed. In this prison, one abides by a brutal rule carried out by those with the most authority, and Cesar is the one who possesses it, His time in prison has made him a man that I would not consider to be good or evil but mainly a survivalist; its killed or be killed and if you don't have what it takes, you are expendable and will mostly likely die. Here is a man who gives people offers that they cannot refuse but is much colder that a Vito Corleone, to him its all about survival. Here is a man who has ended so many lives for the sake of his own survival that ordering a hit on someone else's has become nothing more than a daily occurrence; such as the nonchalance of brushing one's teeth.
Now Malik must kill, he must learn, and he will have to do it fast we know Malik is weak, we witness it when he pitifully tries to defend himself from getting his shoes stolen by some prison thugs on his first day. Cesar believes due to Malik's Arabic heritage he will be able to get closer to the Muslim witness, so we get the impression that Cesar is just using Malik and that he, like all the other mob bosses associates, is a expendable as a tool.
If one thinks that Malik isn't much of a prophet because he didn't "foresee" himself getting arrested than that person is as shrouded in ignorance as Malik was. To become a prophet is not something one is born with, it is a rite of passage, it is earned. When Malik struggles to murder the witness (after befriending him with the promise of sex) it is brutal, bloody, and pitiful. However by killing the man Malik will get to live another day, he has "earned" his rite of passage, baptized in blood. A Prophet is one of the most authentic films I have ever seen, obviously because it is a foreign film. What I enjoy most about foreign film is that it is usually so unrestrained, so free from the constraints of Hollywood mediocrity and foolish romanticism, but also because it gives a differnt perspective on how to make cinema. Director Jacques Audiard, whose previous film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (also staring Niels Arestrup) was a re imagining of Fingers a film starring Harvey Keitel, and he shows that he can have influences and still make an original work of his own without resulting to generic formula.
It is A Prophet's uncanny ability to show familiar things and give it a different perspective, both in character and plot, that makes it a success as a piece of cinema. The performances in this film are spectacular with Neils giving the best one with his scene stealing role as a cunning mob boss. The environment in this film is also highly effective with its cold metal corridors, use of the weather, breathtaking cinematography that gives a constant feel of claustrophobia, and moody score.
Malik has been plunged into a hell, and we are right there with him. We will see if he has what it takes to survive or if he will become just another casualty in prison. He situation is almost hopeless and eventually, one who watches this film cannot help but gain sympathy for him, watch him become smarter, cunning, colder, calculated, and a prophet; its that timeless story on one who rises to power that viewers just can't get enough of. After killing the witness, Malik is giving a task by Cesar: to help run his crime business by with the leaves he gets from prison. Malik however has become smarter, and just like Cesar, now possess alterior motives, he has earned his rite of passage, and if he can get through this prison term, might just be able to survive on the outside again.