A Prophet opens Friday in select theaters (see "Now Playing" below)
A Prophet, the French entry into the foreign language Oscars competition, is one of the most plot-packed character studies I've ever seen. The story is so dense that when we arrive at the end of this two-and-a-half-hour film, we feel like we've emerged from a two- or three-season story arc of an HBO series—fitting, since A Prophet echoes that cable channel's Oz, The Sopranos and The Wire, and the unflinching violence you can find in all three.
By the end of A Prophet, we're exhausted. With action occurring in three languages, not including the English subtitles, the film is a string of intricate plotting that makes it seem long—indeed, the plot "summary" in the film's press notes consumes four pages. But it's a good kind of long, a Godfather kind of long. By the time of the film's operatic denouement—with Jimmie Dale Gilmore's haunting take on "Mack the Knife" serving as the soundtrack—the title character has become someone unrecognizable. We've traveled miles in his shoes.
Directed by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) from a screenplay he co-wrote, the film opens in a high-security prison in the northwest of France. They may have cradle-to-grave health care in that country, but there the prisons seem to be as bad as American ones, where weaker prisoners are under constant threat of violence and intimidation.
Such is the situation for Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a young French Arab who has just been sentenced for, evidently, attacking a police officer. He's unkempt, illiterate, friendless—and essentially harmless. How long can he last in jail? Like an injured deer being singled out by wolves, Malik is immediately beaten and robbed of his shoes in the prison yard. We learn that the prison's inmate population is ruled by a Corsican gang—technically political prisoners but really just thugs. The prison also contains a significant Arab population, but before Malik can slip into their protection, he falls under the fateful sway of the leader of the Corsicans, an aging, weary-looking but ruthless capo named César Luciani (Niels Arestrup).
The film's story is set in motion by a seemingly minor incident with an inmate who turns out to be a high-value Arab prisoner called Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), whom the Corsicans want killed before he testifies in a trial. When César learns that Malik has encountered Reyeb, they summon the hapless new prisoner. César tells Malik that he must kill Reyeb. Should Malik fail to carry out the assignment, he will be murdered.
It's an awful predicament for this young, vulnerable character, but what's most interesting about the way the film unfolds after this early scene is how Malik begins to grow. Malik gets his first glimpse of human decency when he encounters his intended victim, who turns out to be a literate, thoughtful character.
Their encounter becomes a road-to-Damascus moment for Malik. Although he's still ignorant and powerless, he becomes aware of his physical and moral agency in the world. He adapts to his predicament, beginning with a series of small steps to improve his lot—which isn't much, as he's forced into the protective embrace of the Corsicans, acting as their butler while enduring their racist hostility. In time, though, César will become ever more dependant on him as the younger man earns the right to take daylong furloughs out of the prison. Their evolving relationship is the crux of the movie: We expect it to be a sentimental, paternal one, but the characters are too ruthless, and their environment is too harsh for that.
While the film is plenty violent, Audiard effectively lifts the gloom with lightly supernatural touches and allusions to Sufism—including the mysterious incident that gives the film its title—all in the service of representing Malik's evolving conscience and widening existential awareness. The film's increasingly complex developments involve Corsican, Italian and Arabic mob activity on the outside that isn't always easy to follow (fortunately, the filmmakers help on occasion with subtitles that identify key characters). At the end of this dense tale, we're left marveling at the distance Malik has traveled in the time it's taken the film to dramatize several years of his life.
A Prophet is the story of the runt of life's litter learning to survive, and then some. But, more than a Darwinian struggle, this is also a moral parable. It takes more than ruthless strength and dumb courage to carry Malik; his survival requires intelligence, creativity, opportunism—and a few sparks of decency.