Winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and securing an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film, this gritty French crime thriller revolves around Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate, non-religious Arab street orphan who is sentenced to serve six years in prison in an area near Marseilles after scuffling with police.
Far younger and more fragile than other 19 year-olds, he’s immediately cornered by menacing Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the aging boss of the Corsican gang, and ordered to assassinate a Muslim named Reyeb (Hichem Yacourbi). (The Corsicans are referred to as political prisoners, a tradition going back to an insurrection on the island of Corsica, where Napoleon was born.) Forced into subservience, Malik’s first clumsy killing is graphically gory – with blood surging from the victim’s neck. After that, other Arab inmates refer to him a craven Corsican while the Corsicans deride him as “a dirty Arab.” Yet Malik gains acceptance as Cesar’s servant, exacting revenge on perceived enemies and engaging in lucrative drug dealing on his occasional prison furloughs.
Listed among the worst by the Council of Europe, French prisons are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in a high suicide rate – which is what intrigued writer/director Jacques Audiard (“The Beat that My Heart Skipped”) and his screenwriting partner Thomas Bidegain, who capture the deep cultural divisions within contemporary French society. According to the 2010 C.E.A. World Factbook, while only 10% of France is Muslim, it’s estimated that Muslims comprise about two-thirds of the prison population. Stephane Fontaine’s hand-held camerawork convincingly conveys the brutal violence of prison life through realistic rapes and agonizing beatings that will undoubtedly upset the squeamish. And it’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t do judicious pruning to trim the grueling two-and-a-half hours running time.
A French Muslim from an Algerian immigrant family, 28 year-old Tahar Rahim holds his own as the anti-hero opposite veteran character actor Niels Arestrup (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Prophet” is an amoral, arresting 8, an ambiguous socio-political commentary, not unlike “Gomorrah.”.