Initiation in jail is just the same as initiation in frats. Except, in jail, you have to kill somebody. Then again, who knows about some frats.
Condemned to six years in prison, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), part Arab, part Corsican, cannot read or write. Cornered by the leader of the Corsican gang currently ruling the prison, he is given a number of “missions” to carry out, toughening him up and gaining the gang leader’s confidence in the process, which also leads him to make his own way of business. And eventually, little Malik becomes big, bad Malik and before he knows it, ends up becoming the top dog in the prison. But, as usual, when one becomes the top dog, you always got to check every corner you turn down.
Prison movies – we’ve seen ’em all, we know what they do, and yet, they hardly ever get boring. That is exactly the way I felt going into this movie because I know that there is only so much one person can do with the whole prison movie subgenre, but somehow, co-writer/director Jacques Audiard found a way to do so.
And also make me want to really re-watch some Oz.
What’s so great about this film is how it draws you in right from the start. We don’t get any back-story, no flash-backs, or any type of reasons given for why this kid is in jail, and we don’t really need to; all we know is that he’s in jail, he’s a bad kid, and he’s going to have to survive for the next six years of being locked up. This whole introduction brings you right into the world/setting that you’re going to stuck with for the next two-and-a-half-hours and no matter how dirty, no matter how disgusting, and no matter how vile it may get, you just cannot look away. This is just one of those gritty tales that starts off strong, brings you into it’s atmosphere, and never lets go of you, even if it does try to stretch out its ambitions every once and awhile. However, in the end, this is your typical prison movie, just with an extra addition of grit.
The best way to sum this film up would be to call it a combination of Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption. The whole story revolves around this one kid who does anything that he can to just survive and live out his six-year sentence, but soon realizes that he has to be apart of a bunch of mobsters in order to do so. Meaning, he has yo do whatever he can to survive, which usually entails climbing the mobster-ladder, trying to make more money, trying to gain more respect, and most of all, trying to just stay alive in a prison that feels like hell on Earth. It all sounds so predictable, but it’s surprisingly not and features a character that we sympathize with early on and keep with, even if he does make some nasty, brutal decisions here and there.
But he feels real, and that’s mostly why he works and can mostly keep us in his corner practically the whole time. As soon as he’s thrown into prison, we see a young punk who is very scared of his surroundings and has no idea what to do, but then musters up the courage to start doing all of these monstrous actions to gain some respect in prison. He’s not the nicest kid actually; he’s greedy, he’s selfish, he’s a cold-blooded killer, and he doesn’t really think about others before himself, but for some odd reason, we always root for him and just want him to live on. That is probably the biggest strength of this movie and Audiard’s direction, it’s that we always feel sympathy for a kid that doesn’t seem like he even deserves it in the first place. This movie probably would have cracked and been less interesting, had it not been for the development done to him and for that, I gotta say, “Well-done, Frenchies!”
“Dammit! Sat on the ketchup packets again!”
And of course, I also have to give plenty of credit to Tahar Rahim, who does quite an awesome job as Malik because the guy is called out to do a lot of things with this character, and he somehow makes it all work in a believable way. He goes from being this scared, sheltered little kid in a very big and mean place, to becoming a dirty, slimy, and brutal bastard that takes over the prison in a way that would seem unbelievable, had it been any other story and any other character. There’s also a lot of personality to this guy to where you can actually see why the film is mainly focused on him, and the whole story surrounds everything he does, whether it be good or bad.
As good as Rahim is though, the real scene-stealer of the whole movie just so happens to be Niels Arestrup as the prison-mafia kingpin, César Luciani, who takes Malik under his wing from the start. What surprised me so much about Arestrup is that this guy does not look any bit of intimidating; he’s stoutly, he’s in desperate need of a shave/shape-up, walks around like he’s got something in his pants, and in all honesty, looks like my pop-pop, if my pop-pop was homeless and an alcoholic. So basically, if you saw this guy walking down the street, you would not fear for your life one bit but somehow, Arestrup makes us feel that with his character in every scene he’s in. The guy obviously shows you that he has power and control in this prison and lets you know, early on, that he’s not messing around when he orders you to go kill some guy, and he makes sure you don’t forget who the boss of this prison is and if you double-cross him, you better hope to the heavens that you get the hole, and even that won’t save your life. It’s really strange to see Arestrup play such a manic-like role here, whereas in something like War Horse, he played this sympathetic, grand-pappy figure that seemed to cry a little too much the whole film. Even though this movie came out before that one, it’s still nice to see a change of pace for an actor that obviously seems like he could have a big career just playing any type of role he wanted.
Consensus: It’s a long one, but if you stick with it, A Prophet is not only worth your time and effort for the small spin it puts on the prison genre, but also because of the performances for these fully-detailed characters.
8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!
Not the line for the soup kitchen, fellas. Move it along.
Photo’s Credit to: Thecia.Com.Au