We never learn why 19-year-old Malik (newcomer Tahar Rahim) has been sentenced to six years in a French prison. But as he begins his stretch in Jacques Audiard’s harrowing and sharply ironic rags-to-criminal-riches tale A Prophet (a 2009 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film), we can guess that it’s for no terrible misdeed. He’s so meek a fellow that his sneakers are quickly stolen right off his feet during his first venture into the exercise yard, and he is easy pickings for Corsican mafioso César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who sees in the half-Arab Malik the perfect figure to help him bring down a rival Muslim gang.
The notion that what prisons are best at is turning out better criminals is Audiard’s thesis, and he shows us through his keen eye how a smart but untrained mind like Malik’s will find his only chance of survival in latching onto the likes of Luciani and learning so well that he overtakes his mentor. Biting incongruities abound: The prison school that teaches the illiterate Malik to read is nothing next to the system that hones him as a mob mastermind; the “rehearsal” for Malik’s first murder in prison to take out one of Luciani’s competitors, and how haunted Malik is afterward, stand in pointed contrast to how easily and thoughtlessly he kills later.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that the prison in which most of this bitter, riveting story takes place seems downright liberal to American eyes used to the likes of Oz and The Shawshank Redemption. Prisoners have televisions and coffeemakers in their cells, mobile phones are so easily smuggled in that they might as well be authorized, and day passes for trips into the outside world are readily available for the well-behaved inmate. And still, it’s nothing but a training ground for creating lifelong violent felons.
Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup