Film Review: A Prophet (Un Prophète)

First-rate French prison drama that, with the right marketing, could find a sizeable audience outside of the usual art-house crowd.

Considering that the United States leads the world in incarcerations, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're also responsible for what seems like the highest rate of prison-set entertainments. Between movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Felon and such TV series as "Oz" and "Prison Break"—not to mention the numerous documentaries and reality shows made about our penal system or the myriad James Patterson-penned crime thrillers that dominate bookshelves—American audiences can spend an inordinate amount of time following the exploits of people doing time. As a result, the new French prison film A Prophet (Un Prophète) probably won't seem as novel over here as it was in its homeland, where it picked up several awards (including the Grand Prix prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival), played to packed houses and generated headlines over its grim depiction of the country's penitentiaries.

That said, it's clear that Americans love a good prison story and A Prophet is one of the best to come along in some time, certainly since HBO's marvelous jailbird soap opera "Oz" went off the air. In fact, there's no reason why the film couldn't find mainstream success on these shores, even with the challenges that often face foreign films (i.e., a resistance to subtitles, a lack of recognizable stars) in the domestic marketplace. An Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film should help raise the movie's profile, but it will ultimately be up to the distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, to make a concentrated push for the attention of audiences beyond the art-house circuit.

As in so many American prison movies, the issue of race is at the center of A Prophet, which follows a young Muslim convict through the course of his six-year sentence in a dilapidated jail on the outskirts of Paris. Almost immediately after settling into his cell, Malik El Djebena (newcomer Tahar Rahim in a terrific lead performance) is approached by representatives of the powerful Corsican gang and ordered to kill another prisoner in his cellblock. Succeed and he'll be granted their protection for the duration of his stay, a major concession since the Corsicans are routinely at odds with the jail's Muslim population. Refuse or fail and he'll be dispatched on a one-way trip to the prison morgue. With no other option, the terrified fish (which, as all "Oz" fans know, is prison slang for "newbie") goes through with the murder, the first of many crimes he'll commit while behind bars.

The upside of this nightmarish introduction to prison life is that it forces Malik to stop being a passive pawn and learn how the system works, first by cozying up to the Corsicans' boss César (Niels Arestrup), a hardened lifer with little hope of ever seeing the outside world again. After a lengthy stint as César’s errand boy, Malik gains the older man's trust and graduates to bigger and better assignments, such as carrying out crucial tasks (like dropping off a suitcase filled with money and picking up the beaten body of a Corsican enforcer—you know, typical business transactions) for his boss during the day-long prison leaves he's occasionally granted. At the same time, he's pursuing a few of his own side projects as well, including a drug-smuggling operation and a top-secret plan that could shift the balance of power in the prison from the Corsicans to the Muslims.

In interviews, A Prophet's co-writer and director Jacques Audiard has stated that he never intended to make a vérité-style expose of the French prison system, but the film's setting is so vividly realized and the characters so compelling that it'll be understandable if viewers confuse fiction for reality. Perhaps that's why Audiard felt compelled to add several fantastical flourishes to this otherwise gritty tale, most notably recurring appearances by the ghost of Malik's murder victim as well as a dream—or is it a divine vision?—that later saves him from a likely death. Truth be told, these elements don't entirely mesh well with the rest of the movie's narrative, but at least A Prophet avoids getting bogged down in the same kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo that sank The Green Mile.

Audiard has crafted an intelligent, involving prison drama guaranteed to captivate any moviegoer who's able and adventurous enough to seek it out.