Malik El Djebena (Rahim) has been in and out of the juvenile detention system since age 11. He’s homeless, no family or friends. After assaulting a policeman, the 19-year old French Arab is sent to an adult prison to serve a six-year sentence.
Everything we learn about Malik comes piecemeal. He speaks in a muted voice, and we are not privy to his thoughts or his past. At times it is like pulling hen’s teeth. Yet this magnificent film will follow Malik until its final frame. The results are mesmerizing.
In a prison populated by rival Corsicans and Muslims, kingpin César Luciani (Arestrup) orders Malik to seduce and kill a Muslim snitch under protective custody. “So you kill him or I kill you!”
Malik does everything possible to avoid carrying out the hit — from going to the warden to getting thrown in the hole — but to no avail.
When Malik finally enters his intended victim’s cell armed with a razor blade concealed in his mouth, he is flummoxed — Rayeb (the electrifying Yacoubi) offers tea and encourages him to learn to read and write: “The idea is to leave here a little smarter.” Minutes later, the brutal and botched killing occurs. It will haunt the young man as Rayeb in his nightmares and daydreams.
In the astonishing scene that follows, we witness the moment Malik learns to read. He identifies the French word canard — a duck — and slang for a trickster who misleads or falsely reports.
The film is also concerned with detailing the minutiae of French prison life: inmates get a baguette with their meals (no wine), make blue jeans, and use sun reflectors to get a prison yard tan.
After two years serving as a lackey for the aging mobster, Malik learns a third language, Corsican, earns trustee status, and is permitted half-day furloughs. He becomes César’s “eyes and ears” inside and outside the walls. He surreptitiously starts his own business trafficking drugs with the help of Ryad (Bencherif), a Muslim he has befriended. This betrayal ultimately leads to an unforgettable showdown on the prison yard between Malik and Little César.
With its mixed-blood protagonist, the film explores issues of race and cultural identity, but A Prophet is equal parts prison drama, gangster thriller, film noir, and a subtle critique of the socio-political reality in France. A subtext explains its enigmatic title with Christian and Muslim symbolism.
A few critics have likened this film to last year’s Gomorrah in which young Italian thugs quote Scarface as Biblical verse, but Audiard’s film is the anti-Scarface.