Condemned to six years in prison, 19-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) cannot read nor write. Arriving at the jail entirely alone, he appears younger and more fragile than the other convicts. Cornered by the leader of the Corsican gang who rules the prison, he is given a number of 'missions' to carry out, toughening him up and gaining the gang leader’s confidence in the process. But Malik is brave and a fast learner, daring to secretly develop his own plans..
CANNES: In A Prophet, an illiterate 19-year-old Frenchman of Arab descent goes to prison for 6 years and emerges with a far more pragmatic education than I received in my 4 years at a top-notch American university. With the help of a very well-chosen cast, director Jacques Audiard (The Beat that My Heart Skipped) has made an involving and instructional prison drama that convinces from start to finish.
Even upright citizens know that a newbie needs 'protection' in the joint. Malik (Tahar Rahim) is almost as far as you can get from a hardened criminal. A homeless orphan without friends or resources, Malik has no idea he's a quick study until he's forced into situations nestled between a rock and a hard place. Corsican mobster Cesar Kuchiani (a terrifyingly direct Niels Arestrup) makes Malik an offer he literally can't refuse.
Killing somebody in the confines of a prison is both ingeniously simple and rather difficult. (Try this at home if you like, since French films don't carry disclaimers not to: hide a razor blade against your gums, bring it forward and spit it out like a human PEZ dispenser, slit your target's throat.)
Malik learns the ropes in a setting where the logic of supply and demand is implacable. When he's eligible for 12-hour furloughs for good behaviour, Malik performs scary errands for Cesar and entrepreneurial tasks for himself. It's amazing how much you can get done in a day if you put your mind – or your weaponry – to it.
The title hints at a changing of the guard. "There's no Italian mafia in France but there is a mob, which happens to be Corsican," says Audiard. But by sheer virtue of numbers, the Arab and Muslim populations in French prisons are an increasing force to be reckoned with. Malik navigates between clans, each with their codes of respect and honour.
"What interests me in this tale is that it's a metaphor for society," Audiard explains. "It's not all that different on the inside or the outside." Anyone currently incarcerated in a French prison might take issue with that, but you get the general idea.
Arestrup learned to speak his lines in Corsican dialect well enough to rate a compliment from a Corsican reporter at the film's Cannes press conference.
The intricate script, which is credited to four gifted screenwriters, including Audiard, is based on a story by screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri who also penned 2008's wonderfully compelling biopic of notorious French criminal Jaques Mesrine starring Vincent Cassel (who co-starred in Audiard's Read My Lips). If you want to see it (and I assure you, you do), take a deep breath and bear with me. Public Enemy Number One: Part 1 (Mesrine: L’Instinct De Mort) and Public Enemy Number One: Part 2 (Mesrine: L’Ennemi Public N° 1), directed by Jean-François Richet, is now called Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts in the English-speaking world. (It would seem that the real enemy of the public is the lost knack of conjuring terse, catchy titles.)
Unable to shoot in an actual prison "since they were all functioning as prisons," Audiard and his producers decided to build their own in an industrial suburb of Paris. "Usually when you build a set from scratch, you make it so the walls and ceilings can be moved to make way for lights and cameras," Audiard explained after the film's initial press screening at Cannes, "but we decided to build a solid structure, a hard rather than a flexible set. Watching it take shape helped us build the prison in our minds, as well."
When one character's eye gets messed with, he really sees things differently. As he did in Read My Lips, in which one character is almost completely deaf, Audiard delights in playing with sound, not only in the specific slang vocabularies within identifiable languages, but also in the way sounds register, including the temporary deafness that follows gunshots at close range.