This is a coming-of-age story, the coming-of-age in a French prison of Malik, an illiterate 19-year-old Arab played with great skill by Tahar Rahim. Why he’s in prison is never explained and doesn’t matter anyway; it’s the fact that he’s there and how he adapts that concerns us in this remarkable film, directed by Jacques Audiard, that takes the familiar prison genre and twists it in all sorts of directions.
The jail is run not by the warders (movie prisons never are) but by two rival, criminal factions – the Muslims and the Corsicans, the latter led by a deeply sinister Mr Big (Niels Arestrup).
Malik, to whom initially his religion means little, is accepted by neither mob; to the Muslims he’s a Corsican, to the Corsicans a Muslim, or even “a dirty Arab”. But at least he has access to the Muslim block and Arestrup sees a way to turn this to his own advantage.
One of the Muslims is about to give dangerous testimony against him and must be stopped. By the simple use of threats – kill or be killed – Malik is coerced into murdering the man. At this point I should warn you that the death scene is extremely violent “Malik does terrible things, yet we are on his side” yet oddly touching because the victim (Hichem Yacoubi) turns out to be a decent, kindly man who, unaware that the boy is to be his assassin, urges him to learn to read and generally educate himself.
“The idea,” he says, “is to come out of this place less stupid than you came in.” And Malik heeds this advice, not in order to be a good, law-abiding citizen when he finishes his six-year stretch but to make himself an even more efficient crime boss than Arestrup.
Bit by bit he becomes the Corsican’s right-hand man, meanwhile plotting to build his own criminal enterprise. All of which might sound interesting, though not particularly novel. But what gives the film its edge and its appeal are powerful performances by the apparently avuncular Arestrup, and Rahim.
The former draws Malik into what amounts to an abusive father-son relationship. He has no real interest in the boy except that he finds him useful. As for Malik, well, he does terrible things. True, he’s forced to do them and shows no pleasure in them – indeed he has uneasy visions of the man he killed, which possibly explains the film’s somewhat ambiguous title – but they are nevertheless terrible.
And yet, remarkably, we are on his side, willing him to succeed in his struggle to survive, however nefarious his ambitions. Cut to the chase and, yes, it’s another prison drama but one which, because of the unfamiliar French setting, clever direction and, especially, the central performances, rises far above average.
A Prophet is tonight, 11pm, Film4