One of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film, A Prophet is sort of like a French Goodfellas with more emphasis on prison scenes, a little less scene-by-scene richness, and a little more audience-courting embrace of the "universal."
Like Goodfellas' Henry Hill, an Irish kid who makes an unlikely entry and rise in the Italian mafia, A Prophet's protagonist is an ethnic outsider who makes his way into a criminal order naturally wary of outsiders.
Malik El Djebena (newcomer Tahar Rahim) is a young French-Algerian man who finds himself imprisoned with a six-year sentence after attacking a police officer. An outsider in the prison culture divided by racial lines, Malik is immediately beaten in the yard and has his sneakers stolen but gets up to seek immediate reprisal, a nervy reaction that is noticed by the Corsican mafia element in the prison, including leader César Luciani (Niels Arestrup).
Soon after, an Arab witness, Reyeb, is sent to the prison pending trial and an order comes from the outside for César to have the new prisoner killed. Not wanting to risk his own men on the job, César courts Malik, telling him that he will murder Reyeb for the Corsicans or risk losing his own life. Prison logic becomes Darwinian: Kill or die.
Doing this deed for the Corsicans sets the initially naive, unformed Malik onto a path for the rest of his prison bid. In exchange for his hit on Reyeb, Malik is protected by the Corsicans, and he becomes something of a grunt worker/servant for them. But he is not of them and is still derided as a "dirty Arab."
Slowly — the film takes place over several years — Malik begins to manipulate his half-in/half-out standing to elevate his station within the pre-existing criminal underworld. Though the film's more than two-and-a-half-hour running time can be a bit of a grind, the duration and patient, realistic visual style allows A Prophet to accumulate detail. But the biggest reason the story works is Rahim, whose performance is fascinating.
Malik enters prison poor (he's never taken a plane flight), illiterate, and totally unconnected. He's a lost kid overwhelmed by the sudden experience of imprisonment, but Rahim lets us see him thinking through his situation. The actor's lack of experience anchoring a feature film seems to dovetail with the character's inexperience with prison culture and criminal-organization hierarchy. But Malik is stealthy and observant, and the film's density lends the character's prison growth curve and self-improvement more realism than it might otherwise have.
Malik's cultural displacement ultimately works in his favor, and when César arranges furloughs for Malik in order to have him run mob errands for him on the outside, Malik uses the time to build up his own drug-running operation as well.
Newcomer Rahim is matched by veteran Arestrup, who plays César as an old lion in winter, more menacing for relative stillness and silence but whose comfort in command masks an increasingly tenuous hold on criminal leadership.
Director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is no stranger to art-film crossover success, but he reaches a new level in A Prophet. But as strong as A Prophet is in its central performances and many stellar individual scenes, it doesn't quite earn the self-promotion.
It may not play up violence as thrill seeking à la Brian De Palma's much-too-beloved crime saga, but in pushing toward personal redemption, A Prophet displays its own brand of false slickness, referencing instead the likes of Slumdog Millionaire or The Shawshank Redemption. Whether you take those comps as endorsement or problematic might determine how fully you're able to embrace A Prophet.
Opening Friday, April 2nd