Musings of a Moving Image Enthusiast
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If the subject matter of a movie involves life in prison, you can be sure that there’s a lot of loneliness, despair and violence coming your way. That doesn’t mean Jacques Audiard’s Oscar nominated A Prophet (Un Prophète) doesn’t have any of those elements. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about strength, survival and power. May I also mention that it’s one of my favourite non-English movies ever.
A Prophet is the story of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19 year old petty criminal who is sent to prison to serve a six-year sentence for a crime that isn’t quite described. A Frenchman of Arab descent, Malik is a timid individual who is sure that the next few years of his life will be a hell he isn’t quite prepared for. Sure enough he is stripped of what little courage and self-respect he had on his first day behind the merciless walls. His fear also marks him as a target for César Luciani (Neils Arestrup), a Corsican mobster who seemingly rules the prison by employing an equal mix of bribes and violence. César decides to use Malik to murder an inmate who is about to testify against his associates. With no escape and no choice, Malik is forced to go against his will and carry out the task.
Thus begins Malik’s transformation into a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Though looked down upon by César’s thugs due to his race, Malik manages to form a bond with the man in charge due to his unquestioned loyalty, despite his rising rank within the prison social system. Malik also uses his time in the prison to make most of the opportunities he gets that he never had on the outside. He waits, he listens and he learns. Once he becomes eligible for furloughs, he uses his short trips outside the prison to lay the foundation of his own criminal empire.
Audiard has done a fabulous job of creating a dark and sordid tale which grips you from the beginning to the end. The hazy atmosphere in tight spaces that serve as prison cells gives you an idea of how life is for a prison inmate. From the first scene to the last, he has your attention and the enigma that Tahar Rahim is only aids him in completing the picture he wants to paint. Rahim is so good at showcasing Malik’s transformation from the meek inmate to a member of the group that makes the rules that you may be excused for believing that it’s all real. The metamorphosis is tough on the senses and so believable that it will leave you shaken for quite some time after the movie ends. A word of appreciation for the able supporting role by Neils Arestrup as a ruthless mob boss who can be sympathetic at times.
By the end of the movie you will realize why it won almost every award it was nominated for around the world. It’s one of those rare films that are so satisfying to watch that you feel bad that it wasn’t longer.