A masterpiece is what “A Prophet” is. It has a central character Malik (Tahar Rahim) entering the worst place at the age of 19. He has no family or friends outside or inside this place called prison. He is there to exist and serve his sentence of six years. Then what? If nothing would have happened to him as the film shows, I am not sure what really he would achieve getting out. But there is something he would like to go back to the world for. The fresh smell of air and the simple existence of a society is the only thing he appear to linger for. When he leaves in the prison van to the place he has to call home for next few years, director Jacques Audiard shows his viewpoint between those grilled vehicle windows. Everything is that close of a reach and it is going away for a long time. He sees those wistfully.
We do not know what he is in for but we do know that most of his childhood were spent in Juvenile Center for Corrections. Now that he is old enough, he promotes to high school of prison. He comes and stays aloof. Does not speak up much and does not ask questions. When someone beats him up for his sneakers, he goes and beats them back only to be laid down again. He moves on. He does not appear to hold grudges. He only sees opportunities. That is his instinct and nature.
Two gangs in prison. The Corsican Mafia head Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) controls the den while the Arabs are the next major gang who do not have much power other than to belong with each other. Malik is an Arab by looks but he does not give a damn about it. That is the last thing he needs at this point of time. The Corsicans threatens him to take up the job of killing a transit inmate Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Reyeb is there to be a witness in a trial and henceforth the need to kill. Malik is a petty criminal from the looks of it and is scared straight to do the job. He gets training, intense and up close. The training is cruel, bloody but he has to do it. No other choice. Kill or be killed. The moment to that scene is one of very many that will chill the bones and generate the tension to the nerves.
We are not here to witness the redemption of Malik. He is a crook with a moderate conscience. The thing is he knows it is a game of survival. He does not plan and builds on the small opportunities he gets through. His mind works in such a way that anywhere and anytime there is a need to push the right coins, he does it without any difficulty. Audiard does not punctuate it and lets it flow because the clever and smart actions are the characteristics of Malik than the film. Before we know it, Malik becomes the main man for the audience to root for though there is every chance that he is going to go down. A man cannot be that successful and sharp minded forever and with every instance.
Malik does the job and does not become the immediate soldier of Cesar. Cesar and his crew treat him as a servant as he still is “Dirty Arab” to them. Malik knows that and keeps his head down. He does things and does not emotionally express his feelings. It is of no use and no one cares for it, even himself. His first victim Reyeb mentioned couple of things before he sliced him up. He says how it is important to read and how prison has schools. He takes up that advice and begins class. He befriends another Arab inmate Ryad (Adel Bencherif). Ryad get out of prison early and he becomes the only friend, family and accomplice for Malik.
Malik slowly works around Cesar and does not plot anything. A law rules Corsicans to transfer them out which leaves Cesar alone and vulnerable. Cesar still has power over guards but his personnel are down. Even then he promotes Malik but keeps him at bay. Malik learned Corsican and that helps him out. Serving three years now, he is eligible to leave the premise for a day. He becomes from errand boy to senior errand boy. When these happens, he works out another deal with a hash dealer and uses Ryad’s connection on the outside to begin his business. This progress will sneak up and we sit and wonder how this guy spins around everything and everyone without notice.
Tahar Rahim is a fabulous actor and his Malik never ever shows a sense of being cocky. He does not get arrogant nor does he associate himself to any group. When any one asks him whether he works for Cesar, he answers that he works for himself. That is the truth and he takes it to the heart. Surprisingly he speaks truth most of the time and hides the essential truth. He never lies and never fights back a confrontation. He gives in and let the opportunities roll around him when he grabs it with an impeccable timing.
"A Prophet” is not a simple prison crime story. It visually brings a raw form of the prison and then takes a surreal sequence of hallucination or dreamy state of Malik into such a careful art. Oh boy, I loved this film. This is what “The Godfather” or “Eastern Promises” versed itself with beauty, cruelty and bloodshed packing together. Then it makes it a poetry and takes the film into something else. This is one such and deservingly so to be placed in those high cadres of those mentioned great movies.