“You’ve come a long way”
It is weird, but after reading a quick blurb about director Jacques Audiard’s motivations for creating Un prophète [A Prophet], my view of the film went down ever so slightly. It’s not like I thought it was the greatest movie and now I abhor it, no, it is a very well made cinematic work, but I do have to question someone saying that it was made to create an icon for people who have none, meaning Arabs in France. So he is giving these people a hero to worship in the form of a convicted felon, turned murderer, turned mafia leader? I’m not sure that is something I’d want to be affiliated with as an icon representative of myself. However, regardless of a quote I read that may have been taken out of context, one cannot deny the power of this film as it shows the evolution of Malik El Djebena, gleaning what it means to be a networked kingpin on the inside and positioning himself to become just that.
We never really find out what he did to go to prison in the first place. Our introduction is to a young nineteen year-old sentenced to six years behind bars, a backhanded comment about beating up police officers—for which he refutes and claims innocence—the only mention of possible crime. He is very green and completely out of his element when let out into the general population. The only reason he is even approached to warrant protection and membership into a sect of Corsicans is the fact he speaks Arabic and can get close to an Arab recently transferred that they want dead. It becomes a subject of kill or be killed despite his fears and anxiety in knowing he could never harm a soul. But pressures are too much and he soon realizes that the Corsicans control the prison; to refuse or fail is impossible. Once the job is finished, Malik is owned by these men and billed as their ‘dirty Arab’, relegated to cleaning, fetching, and doing all the dirty jobs, yet at the same time treated with disgust as a Corsican by the Arabs. Treated as a second class citizen by everyone not withstanding, he is smarter than his inability to read and write will let on, slowly learning the languages and the rules of engagement, setting the stage for a potential hostile takeover.
Played by Tahar Rahim, in a phenomenal performance for a first time leading role, you really get to see the maturity growing as each year passes for Malik inside the prison. He arrives with a welt under his eye, scars on his back, and a temper hidden behind his soft-spoken, isolated demeanor. The beast rises as each task is completed, building this boy into a man as trust is gained and connections are made. That reliability stems from a new law saying Corsicans are able to serve time closer to home, causing leader César Luciani—a menacing portrayal from Niels Arestrup, especially when considering his age and brutality—to find himself alone as his comrades move away while he must stay. So, Malik inherits it all, moving next door as second in command, but still being treated as a lesser human, only helping breed his resentment towards César. If nothing else is understood, this Arab knows that everyone is willing to do a favor as long as they get something in return. As such, whenever his boss sends him on a mission—Malik has earned leave days by this time—he sets up his own relationships and business from the skills he has slowly been learning on the inside. Speaking French, Arabic, and Corsican has allowed him to live on the border of every gang, moving the pieces into position, readying himself for when the opportunity presents itself.
Calling him a prophet, as the title implies, comes in his uncanny ability to align himself with enemies, in effect making them allies to each other. He plays every angle and gains their trust and respect, taking them all to the Promised Land. But the confidence is built brick by brick, sometimes even by accident. Oftentimes Malik is very unsure of himself, playing situations by ear, always having the luck to say and do the right things at the right time. It is as though he is doing God’s work, a vessel being led through dangerous meet-ups unscathed. Still a naïve young man, he is only twenty-five after his sentence is complete, he basks in the little freedoms he is given and the friendships he creates, always remaining a prisoner, though, even opening his mouth and sticking out his tongue when stopped at a airport metal detector by force of habit. Adel Bencherif’s Ryad helped him to read and write on the inside and therefore is the man he trusts to run his soon to be flourishing drug trade business; Reda Kateb’s Jordi is treated kindly by buying hash from him, gaining favor until he becomes Malik’s supplier in the prison; and even Slimane Dazi’s Lattrache, a man César sent him to meet and make a deal with on behalf of the Corsicans, becomes an ally. Fate brings them all into his life and somehow, this once scared boy has grown into the kind of man that can not only bring them together, but also successfully lead them.
The entire film is set-up for his eventually usurping of power at the prison. The writing is on the wall from the get-go; so saying that ruins no surprises. I almost want to say that the story is a tad long and boring at points—it is two and half hours after all—but I think that does a disservice to the work, seeing as how I can think of no portion that could be excised. Besides the gradual evolution of the man, Audiard has also infused numerous moments of dark beauty, dream-like sequences of aesthetic worth, adding to Malik’s mystique. Mainly, this comes in the form of his victim Reyeb, played by Hichem Yacoubi, appearing to him periodically as a vision, foretelling the future and always on fire in some regard. Perhaps he is a demon come to lead Malik on the course of evil he takes; I guess the interpretation is left up to the viewer, along with a seemingly random, mesmerizing scene of deer. The cinematography is interesting throughout, without a dull moment, and at its best during a shootout from the inside of a car, shot in slomotion with bullets flying, one man against four. There is definitely something special about Malik El Djebena, either fallen angel doing God’s work—evil for the purpose of good—or the Devil’s. I would just like to believe it is a parable of one man’s willingness to survive and prosper, not a vehicle for some figure to be idolized and worshiped, giving Arabs in France someone to look up to, applauding the death and destruction left in his wake.
Un prophète [A Prophet] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Tahar Rahim as Malik. Photo taken by Roger Arpajou © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to Right: Hichem Yacoubi as Reyeb, Tahar Rahim as Malik. Photo taken by Roger Arpajou © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics