An indigent boy goes on a peripatetic journey of ascension within the criminal world in an institution purported to reform, curb, and punish law-breaking activities. Since that very institution allows preps to prosper and thrive, its purpose is thwarted instantly, even before Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is shuttled to that alliance and gang-run social labyrinth.
Once forcefully commandeered and recruited, Malik finds himself in situations that test his wits and criminal resolve. Though playing the faithful, obedient servant and foot-stool of the Corsican prison gang, Malik is always maneuvering for himself, angling, making connections. At one time being used, slowly the tables turn and Malik begins clandestinely using his boss – César Luciani (Neils Arestrup) – for his own ends.
Like a modern day Edmond Dantes, Malik uses his imprisonment to educate and better himself, not only scholastically but in how to conduct himself in the upper ranks of the criminal world. After all, Malik is the retainer of the most powerful and influential criminal cognoscente in prison, one who has his own criminal empire and network on the outside. He is the best person to stay close, learn from within that prison.
When Malik begins putting together his own criminal enterprise is when the film begins picking up steam but when he is furloughed with Cesar’s help, A Prophet’s protagonist reaches new levels of character depth.
On two occasions where death is imminent, Malik has moments (epiphanies, miracles, foresight), where he predicts or is in the right place at the right time to avoid catastrophe. In one scene – as bullets fly in slow motion overhead – Malik has a content look on his face, as though he knows all will be well. Whether it’s the aforementioned or divine grace, who knows, but a crime kingpin refers to him afterward as “a prophet”.
What makes Malik memorable – besides his ability to survive – is that he is shrewder than he appears and lets on to others, even when he does not know how to read and write. As Mario Puzo said in his novel The Godfather: “Always have your friends over estimate your strenghts and your enemies under estimate your weaknesses.” During the third act of the film, as the viewer may or may not believe César betrayed Malik previously, they bare witness to Malik betraying César on a critical assignment. This act bolsters his own position in the criminal world while diminishing his boss’s and the viewer does not find out what is really going on to the last second.
The last two minutes of A Prophet rival the last five minutes of Scorcese’s Shutter Island. Both main characters in the films are walking away from the previous situation they were in to a new one but what is implied and shown makes these walks even better. Nicholas Sparks might have to tip his hat to these walks as he could not be happier with their quality if he had written them himself.
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is often compared to Coppola’s The Godfather. There are similarities between the two films but A Prophet is not on that level yet at the same time stand on its own. A Prophet is a very good film in some scenes but just misses the mark of being great and a classic like The Shawshank Redemption. I would love to see the ground work constructed in this film built upon in a sequel. Godfather II anyone? We all know how that film turned out.