This French film, winner of the 2009 Grand Prix at Cannes and France’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is a prison drama in the same league as “Shawshank Redemption” and secondarily “Goodfellas”: raw, intense, and violent. It works largely because Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French youth of Algerian origins, finds himself in horrific circumstances far exceeding the crime of resisting arrest for which he was found guilty and sentenced to a harsh six-year prison sentence. Having to face situations in which both choices will destroy his soul but save his life, he watches and listens, learning to read from a fellow Muslim prisoner, and eventually becoming all he thought he would never be.
As in most prison films, there are rival gangs who change allegiances and betray each other. In “A Prophet” the majordomo is an Italian Corsican mobster, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who enforces a brutal rule in which the prison guards are part of his unquestioned power. The major challenge to his authority is the Muslim faction, which is increasing in size. The protagonist (Malik) hops back and forth between the world of the Corsicans and that of the Muslims. Malik comes from both cultures, but is not fully accepted by either the Italians or the Muslims.
This is a difficult film to review. The gripping introduction to the overpowering dilemma Malek finds himself in leaves the viewer breathless. But the plot is convoluted and with a large cast of actors, a more tightly woven narrative is required for the movie to maximize its impact. The portrayal of life in prison with the constant threat of intense bodily injury or death is realistic and convincing. However, the editing required to see how Malik evolves from a fragile, frightened teenager to a survivor is lacking. This film suffers, unfortunately, from sloppy editing which lengthens the movie to two hours and thirty minutes. At least one-half hour should have been cut out.
Malik may be a “prophet” but not in his own land for there is no place he can call home. “A Prophet” is a difficult film to recommend, for the story’s pacing is flawed and the plot moves forward in confusing side detours. But, this movie is also intriguing for its portrayal of survival at all costs: a betrayal of friends and, perhaps even more tragically, a betrayal of oneself.