You may not have heard of A Prophet. Though nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards – and winning the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes – it features no well-known actors and its marketing campaign in the country was practically nonexistent. With a running time of 2 and a half hours, it’s not a light film to watch, but it’s effective enough at pulling us in the narrative that you won’t find yourself glancing at the time.
The film follows Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a petty criminal sentenced to six years in prison. Though he tries to stay neutral and mind his own business, his innocence is seen by fellow inmates. Cesar, the Corsican gang leader, takes advantage of his being an Arab to get him to kill another inmate who is otherwise untouchable by the Corsicans. From here on in, the drama that unfolds is complex and multifaceted, much like taking on many individual missions while playing Grand Theft Auto.
What’s at stake is Malik’s soul. Malik, after all, is the eponymous “prophet,” one who speaks for God. Though not professing allegiance to any one faith, his comrades are Muslim and advice is offered that, while not overtly religious, speaks of God’s grace. Just as he raises his arms for security checks at the prison, he is like Jesus on the crucifix, doing only what he needs to in order to survive.
The film’s violence is sudden and gritty (read: realistic), somewhat reminiscent of Scorcese’s The Departed. One scene in particular will remain fresh in my mind: blood squirting from an artery followed by convulsions. This is perhaps one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes, for it is a game-changer for Malik and our initial glance into the true darkness of criminal methods. Unfortunately, the suspense factor diminishes later in the second act, with gangs and lone thugs all slowly merging together as Malik tries to balance his foothold between the Corsicans and his fellow Arabs. Here, it seems as though you’re watching Oz on Showcase; the stories of conflicting tribes would almost play out better on television format. One saving grace, however, is Cesar, who remains a menacing foe even as his power in the prison community gradually wanes.
Another scene where Malik and his best friend Ryad assassinate some thugs in an SUV is also enrapturing, though what’s truly compelling is not the violence but the frightened and fragile state of humanity that underlies it.
The film also provides good insight into other cultures. If you never knew that Corsicans speak both French and a little bit of Italian, now you do. But even beyond that, the religious and cultural tension between Arabs and the French is palpable, if not thoroughly explored.
Verdict: Lengthy, but for the cinematography, gritty subject matter and acting performances, well worth the investment.