Naive, weak and frightened, nineteen year old Malik, finds himself thrown into the midst of an established prison community of career criminals. His initial posturing of strength and defiance prove futile as within minutes he is robbed of his shoes in the courtyard. He appears as a mouse thrown into a cage of lions. Alone he will not survive.
The complicated web of power, loyalty and control that dominates the prison appears labyrinthine and two main rival groups control the prison, Corsicans and Muslims. The Corsican Mafia have the upper hand as they control key guards, but their power is on the wane, dangerously at risk of being overpowered by the Muslims.
Malik's ethnic background would presuppose him a connection with the Muslims, yet someone with so little power is given no choice. Within days of arriving he is given the ultimatum by the Corsicans to kill a fellow Arab, Reyeb, or be killed himself.
He is forced to gain Reyeb's trust as he is a key witness in a trial against one of the Corsicans' associates. They take advantage of Malik's shared Arabic background in order to get close to him and force him into accepting Reyeb's offer of hash in return for fellatio. Malik is taught how to conceal a razor blade inside his mouth, then flick it out into the clutch of his teeth and slice at Reyeb's jugular vein.
This shocking act of violence is committed under duress, and both terrifies and disgusts Malik. Despite his aversion to violence, Malik does what he must to live and in effect signs a pact with the devil in order to guarantee his survival.
Like Audiard's previous film The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the electric performance of the film's male lead is the crucial factor drawing us into the film. Newcomer Tahar Rahim moulds a truly unique character in the form of Malik. A masterfully complex individual with a depth simply not seen in much of the rest of cinema, Malik's growth is what makes us so unbelievably drawn to the central figure. His capacity to learn not only gives his character life, but also allows him to manipulate the power relationships within the prison to gain himself considerable power.
Upon entering the prison Malik is illiterate, but this belies an extraordinary intelligence. From merely listening to the innane chatter of his Corsican masters, he learns their language, and uses it to his advantage. Speaking French, having known Arabic from a young age and also learning Corsican puts him in a unique position to communicate, and later manipulate, all the disparate groups within the prison.
Audiard has spoken of his intention to make A Prophet, an anti-Scarface and unlike Tony Montana, Malik uses his considerable intelligence to get ahead in this criminal underworld. His incredible sense of perception allows him to negotiate the finesses of complex situations within the prison to always come out on top. He knows when to lie, when to tell the truth, and when to shut up.
Malik possesses the incredible judgement of a Michael Corleone but there is a humanity within Malik that binds us to him in the way that the usual neurotic and cretinous crime archetypes do not. Malik possess all the skills necessary to utterly dominate the criminal underworld and become the classic Godfather figure, yet his ambition is greater than this. He seeks to build a life for himself outside the prison walls, and in many ways the film provides him with his redemption.
Luciani on the other hand, represents this old model of gangsters, 'The Godfather'. He holds Malik in a master/slave relationship, and uses him as a pawn in his many power games within the prison. But Malik outgrows him, and breaks out of Luciani's control, leaving him like a king without entertainment in the empty and pointless world of the prison.
Representing more than just the death of an old cinematic archetype, Malik's rise represents the ascendancy of Arabs within French society. For a film that locks us so securely into the claustrophobic world of the prison, the extent to which it also looks outwards, embracing themes of the racial and cultural politics within contemporary Europe is remarkable.
A Prophet, like its lead character, is a deeply intelligent film. It asks questions of its audience in a way few other films of the genre dare to do. However, it gives up no ground to its rivals in sheer dramatic power. Rahim's performance is outstanding, but Audiard ellicits masterful displays from his entire cast. Completely in control of the director's craft, A Prophet captures the attention of its audience entirely from start to finish, encompassing terrifying displays of violence and haunting Sufist visions Malik encounters after killing Reyeb to touching, delicate scenes with Djamila. A Prophet is a truly exceptional film that has the power to redefine the genre.