As we left the theater, my companion and I began to talk about the characters in "A Prophet", the new French film by director Jaques Audiard ("Read My Lips"). We wanted to know what was going to happen to Malik, the lead character, after the narrative of the film ends.
How often do you leave a movie so invested in the characters and their lives that you talk about what might happen to them next? I rarely do and I see a lot of films. I can't imagine this is a common occurrence for most people so when it happens, you take notice.
Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives at prison to begin his six year sentence. We quickly learn some of the reasons this 19 year old has been incarcerated as he meets with his Public Defense lawyer and the guard checking him into the prison. Malik has no one ("Who will you receive money orders from?") and his French/ Arab ethnicity has made him a bit of an outcast in society. Both of these factors have led him to a life of crime. Now that he is 19, the punishment for his crimes is his first stay in a real prison; his previous crimes resulted in stays at youth facilities. Terrified and scared, Malik enters the prison yard and stands alone, trying to get by. Soon, Cesar (Niels Arestrup, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"), head of a group of Corsican thugs who run the prison, spots him and wants him to do a job for him. Cesar has been ordered to kill a Muslim prisoner who is being held temporarily in the prison before testifying about one of Cesar's associates. The gangster notices that the informer is interested in Malik. Cesar and his goons move in and give him an ultimatum; kill the Muslim and become a part of their group or feel the wrath. As time passes, Malik becomes a reluctant member of Cesar's group, trusted to a degree, he moves up the prison hierarchy thanks to his mentor. But as he is Arab, he is still treated like dirt by his same friends, mentors and companions. Then, President Sarkozy orders most of the Corsicans to be moved from French prisons to another location. Most of Cesar's henchmen are moved and the gangster finds he must rely on Malik more than he would like. As time passes, Malik begins to take classes and learn how to read and write. But he also learns other valuable lessons which benefit him as a prisoner and will continue to benefit him once he is released.
Written and directed by Jaques Audiard, "A Prophet" is an intelligent, well-made character study about one man's journey to prison. Remarkably involving, we feel like we are taking the journey along with Malik, experiencing the good and bad as he does.
As he is processed to enter the facility, we can see a tremble in Malik's hands. He is clearly not a hardened criminal and his public defender confirms as much. Because of his age, this will be his first stay in a real prison. But this also hints at the life Malik has led to this point. As the guard goes about his duties, he asks if Malik will receive any visitors, if he will get any money from anyone and Malik answers no, he has no one. In these few moments, we get a very complete picture of who Malik is as he enters the prison.
Part of the beauty of "A Prophet" is that we follow Malik's journey throughout his stay and his journey involves a lot of growth. As he becomes a disciple of Cesar, he earns a certain amount of protection and freedom to accompany the 'friendship' of his new mentor. But Cesar and his crew are hardline Corsican criminals (the film paints them as a tough bunch) and they don't mix well with the Arabs and Muslims who are now a part of the prison community. Malik is a mixture of French and Muslim, which is why they approach him in the first place. Once he earns his place in their group, they accept him, more or less, because he of his mixed heritage. The Muslim part is only acceptable because he is at least part French.
Throughout, Cesar's crew seems to barely accept Malik. Even when Cesar seems to be genuinely fond of his young protégé, he can't express his true feelings because of the deep seated racism the rest of his crew holds. Therefore, Malik sits at a separate table, cleans up after the rest, does their menial chores and the like.
As time passes, Cesar comes to depend on Malik more. At one point, a large number of the prisoner's in the gangster's crew are moved to another prison, so he moves Malik into a more prominent position more out of necessity than anything else. When Malik proves himself worthy of the new responsibilities, he gets more and more.
But Malik's education continues on other fronts. He learns to read and starts to take classes. As he becomes smarter, he realizes he wants to embrace his religion more and seeks guidance from friends in the prison. Naturally, these friends give him a more complete picture of what being an Arab means and start to instill some pride in him. And as he continues to learn, he learns how to manipulate events to his benefit.
I think the beauty of Audiard's work is that while he may be using a B-Movie template for the framework of his films, he invests the characters populating these landscapes with so much detail it is hard to not get involved in their lives. In "Read My Lips", he uses a Hitchcock-ian narrative as a springboard and gives the characters so much more interest, back-story and human interest that is difficult to remember any of the hackneyed Hitchcock tributes Brian DePalma attempted. In "Prophet", he uses the prison story as a backdrop but makes it more intimate and personal by concentrating the story on a single young man making his way through a prison system he can't comprehend.
In "A Prophet", the key to the film is watching Malik learn. As we witness his journey, we watch what he experiences through his eyes, we make the journey with him. We learn with him. And as his knowledge expands, we see him begin to piece things together. Even as he continues to learn, he watches everything happening around him with wide eyes, making him seem a little vulnerable but also very curious. Because we are watching through his eyes, there is a little suspense as we piece together what he is piecing together. We watch everything start to click together. When the shift happens, it is pretty subtle but there is a little bit of strength in his expression, in his mannerisms that wasn't there before. It is almost a little thrilling to watch.
As I watched "A Prophet", I was struck by something else. Despite the film's setting and subject matter, there is relatively little violence. There are a few moments, but they serve the story, moving it forward.
Audiard is a very accomplished filmmaker and his films are a treat for the senses. You should see "A Prophet".