Idol Chatter

By Sara Shereen Bakhshian
May contain some spoilers.
Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet (“Un Prophete”), currently in its U.S. theatrical release, is one of those films that you continue thinking about long after you leave the theater. The French film, up for an Oscar this Sunday for Best Foreign Language Film, takes a look at the brutality, corruption, and struggle for survival in France’s prison system
The protagonist is a Frenchman of Arabic descent, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old who is sentenced to six years in prison for an unidentified crime. Early on it is easy to feel for him, as the loner becomes a pawn in the Corsican mob’s plans to assassinate a fellow inmate. Malik has to decide whether to kill or be killed.
He chooses the former, gaining the Corsican prison leader César Luciani’s (Niels Arestrup) protection. The Corsicans, however, only see him as an Arab servant. And the other Arab prisoners, led by the Muslims, consider him a Corsican enemy.

But probably the greatest paradox in the film is showing how Malik’s life has changed for the “better” during his stay in prison. He enrolls in the prison’s school to learn how to read and write. When a political move by the government leads to the release of Corsicans with lesser sentences, Malik moves up in the ranks.
Then as if things couldn’t get any better–he gets a bigger cell with a TV, next door to César’s cell–the leader orders him to seek parole and become a model inmate, while behind bars. Part of his parole proceedings includes 8-hour leaves from the prison to apprentice for a mechanic that he will work for upon release from prison.
Instead, Malik runs errands for César such as dropping off a briefcase, meeting with an Arab mob leader, and conducting another assassination. And in the midst of all this, Malik arranges his own drug smuggling operation. Because of these actions we start to feel less sorry for him.
This is also when Malik solidifies his power and garners the title of prophet from an outside mob boss. Malik unintentionally saves the boss’ life by relaying information from a dream. This man’s trust in turn gives the budding Mafioso Arab acceptance in and out of the prison.
Although one would expect a film titled, “A Prophet,” to be more spiritual–Malik uses religion in a negative way, as a tool to seek control of his situation. However, he is a true prophet in the sense of foreseeing developments and strategizing solutions to not only save himself but also others, leading to a collection of followers.
In the end, Malik walks out of the prison with the single bill he had before. But this time there is a caravan of Arab mob members and his friend’s widow all waiting to start their respective families with him. What happens next might be clarified in a sequel the director seems open to doing.
In the meantime “A Prophet” is basking in the glory of honors. Over this past weekend it received nine César Awards, France’s version of the Academy Awards, including awards for best picture, director and actor for Rahim. The film was also awarded the Grand Prix from Festival de Cannes in May. As for American attention, the film garnered a Golden Globe nomination in December. Now, we will just have to wait to see how the Academy voted in this weekend’s Awards.