A Prophet is the latest film from Jacques Audiard. Set in a French prison, we follow the career of the petty criminal Malik as he comes to prison, joins the prison hierarchy, spins off into aiding Corsican independence fighters, trading drugs and learning how to read. Malik interracts with a series of other characters- Luciano, the leader of the Corsican gangsters, his friend and 'brother' Ryad, the prison guards, the Corsican independence fighters, corrupt lawyers, charitable Imams, the Muslim organisations within the Jail and most importantly the imagined Reyeb. There is even a reference to the current French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, from whose version of the Dark Department comes the order which changes the plot of the film completely. But back to the subject of the film, this film is centered on Malik- the camera stalks him through his career- as he uses to days off to sell drugs and murder, as he passes through the corridors and the clanging doors of the jail. We see him with an intensity and we see his experience- including mystical interludes where Reyeb, whom he murders early in the film, appears to him to talk to him about the future.
The plot is told in episodic interludes- Audiard uses a chapter structure borrowed from amongst others Tarentino though he uses it more effectively. Malik's career in prison starts when he is spotted by the Corsicans- they need a murder done and they tell this callow youth that if he does not perform it, then he will be murdered. Violence is used to up the tension for this moment when morality and survival clashes. The plan is for Malik to pretend to offer Reyeb a blow job, and as he goes down to do the deed, to take a blade from his mouth and cut the unsuspecting man's neck. The moment when he practices and performs this murder is perhaps the most shocking in the entire film. Because he does this he rises to become a servant within the Corsican faction- they hate him because he is an Arab, but slowly thanks to Sarkozy's reforms their numbers dwindle and Luciano becomes increasingly dependant on this son that he did not wish for. He sends him out of the prison on leave to perform murders and Malik starts a business with the 'gypsy' selling drugs outside.
Malik's story is a story of socialisation. At the beggining of the film he is a gauche young man, who feels uncertain in his own skin, wary and aggressively fearful, he responds to any encounter with a hostile attack. During the film, he is taken in by Luciano in order to perform the murder and learns the value of diplomacy- slowly he comes to silence himself, to be more focussed in his aggression. At the beggining of the film, you know what he is thinking, by the end you do not. Furthermore he is much more strategic- at the beggining of the film he has no idea about the groups that make up the prison, by the end of the film he is exploiting and manipulating them. Advising the Muslims that the Corsicans are powerful because they control the guards, going behind Luciano's back because he knows the mobster needs him. Luciano's brutal lessons, including trying to gouge out Malik's eye with a spoon, teach the young criminal that diplomacy is neccessary even if it is war by other means. Accompanying this is a demographic change in the prison- the Corsicans are moved south and increasingly it is the Muslims who dominate the population of the prison- Malik sways adeptly through this change, and does so in a way that he himself years before could never have imagined.
This increasing strategic sense of the prison as a political community is accompanied by two other relationships. The first is with Reyeb who is the victim that Luciano tells him to kill. Reyeb is a ghostly figure who informs Malik of what is to happen- in a sense he is the embodiment of a more sophisticated Malik. He tells Malik how to interpret his life and his prophetical supernatural skill saves Malik's life on occasion. He is Malik's first teacher- just as the episode of the murder is Malik's first episode of learning. Secondly we have Ryad who tells Malik to read, introduces him to Muslims and becomes his greatest ally. We have, because this is self consciously a story which is supposed to say something, two emotions- the first is guilt and the second is friendship and both create a different persona for the young criminal. What we have here is the advancement of Malik from a state of criminality to another state, the two are differentiated not by brutality but by two different but connected evolutions. The first evolution is towards education, the second is to depersonalising. Significantly Malik's first murder makes a greater impact on him than any subsequent murder- the first blood scars Malik and remains upon him until the end, the latter episodes are less profound for him.
You could see the film as a bildungsroman, but it is more than that. It is a sociology of what happens in the prison- both in terms of how it effects prisoners (they become accustomed to its routines: so when Malik goes on a plane he sticks out his tongue during the search- that is what you do afterall in prison when you are searched) and in terms of how the community works. There are some fantastic aerial shots of the yard where you can see that in the mixture of games and waiting, groups are forming and alliances are made and unmade. There are some shots reminiscent of those in Goodfellas which map out a criminal activity or career. The comparison to Goodfellas I think is particularly apt: both films make the atmosphere they live in very real, Malik is an Arabic Henry Hill joining a Corsican mafia. But this film is different because it happens in a prison and Audiard uses that constrained environment to suggest the reality of being unable to escape a particular type of society.
I hope I have not given away too much of the film: this review is not meant to be complete partly because I don't understand what I saw last night, what I hope this review makes you do is see the film. I definitely want to see it again- and I think it is an interesting and provocative film- there are elements I do not understand but it has an intensity that I enjoyed and appreciated.