“What are you? A prophet, or what?”
The first time that we see young prisoner Malik El Djebena (the astounding Tahar Rahim) kill a man, it’s a shattering event. Planned beforehand with excruciating care, the hit goes wrong from the start and ends up a bloody fiasco, Malik’s victim spraying the cell with blood from his butchered neck. Malik can only watch, trembling with adrenalin and terror, as the man’s life shudders out of him before he can return to his own cell and try to live with himself.
The last time we see Malik kill another man, it’s no less devastating a thing, but his perspective has changed. During a chaotic gun battle in a tightly enclosed space, he spends part of it taking cover behind a man’s body, which jerks repeatedly as rounds slam into it. Malik calmly waits it out, smiling benignly. At this point in his criminal career, Malik is able to undertake the gruesome necessities of his trade with more precision than before. The intervening years, while they’ve toughened his skin, haven’t completely deadened the soul that still beams out from Rahim’s dark, searching eyes.
Audiard drops the 19-year-old Malik into his narrative with no past. What can we discern from the slow-healing scar on his cheek and an air of low expectations and hooded fear that comes from too much time in state institutions? The nearest Audiard gets to biography from Malik is when the prison official, getting him ready for his six-year stint, asks Malik, “What do you do, besides attacking cops?” It also becomes clear that he speaks not just the French of the guards and most prisoners, but the Arabic of the prisoners in the Muslim wing.
Even in this, Malik is stripped of his own identity. Brought on as an errand boy for the prison’s Corsican mob, who verbally flay him with anti-Arab remarks, Malik is despised by the Arab Muslims for being employed by the Corsicans. His lack of a serious criminal background is displayed in his nearly botched first killing, the assassination of a suspected snitch, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), which Malik was forced into by the Corsican boss, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), with this simple ultimatum: “If you don’t kill him, I’ll kill you”.
Bound by this act and the simple prerogative of protection to the Corsicans, Malik tries to make his own way. Audiard builds the story of this caged evolution in elegantly constructed scenes with minimal music and a spare, grey-chiseled cinematography that leaves most of the burden upon Rahim’s capable shoulders. Nearly the only time that Audiard indulges himself in overtly directorial flair are the scenes in which Reyeb (once wreathed in flame angel-like, more frequently dark and silent) crops up in Malik’s cell – no accusations or shouts of damnation, simply a reminder of sins committed. Audiard doesn’t waste time on Malik’s guilt once the deed has been done – that stark moral choice that could hardly even been considered a true choice – using instead the mindful presence of Reyeb to keep the episode in viewers’ minds.
While working for the Corsicans, Malik also attends classes, trying for a modicum of self-improvement in the lieu of much else to do. Malik makes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif), a member of the Muslim gang, and slowly discovers a skill for gentle negotiation. Soon the two are running their own criminal operation outside the prison walls. The combination of Cesar’s disgruntled old bearishness and Malik’s softly brilliant maneuvering make for a formidable team, though one whose doom is somewhat hastened by Cesar’s incessant Arab-baiting.
Many crime narratives demand for their protagonist a chained linkage of tasks completed, rivals defeated, glories attained. While Audiard’s film is a crime story to its very core, he doesn’t appear to feel the same need as many of his fellow filmmakers to valorize his young criminal hero. Yes, A Prophet delivers many expected crime story hallmarks, particularly the satisfaction that comes from seeing a criminal enterprise being pieced together and operated with little more than a few conversations and fear.
Malik is no young Scarface, though, no matter how easily he might swim in these dark waters. Even in the deleted scenes packaged with the DVD release, which compile numerous additional interactions in the prison between Malik and his friends and enemies and ghosts like Reyeb and Cesar — including one terse exchange that outlines Malik’s childhood, something cut entirely out of the completed film — Audiard shows that his portrait is meant to be of Malik as a man, not some criminal archetype.) When Audiard sets him loose in the film’s closing scenes, Malik looks not all that different from when he entered the prison a beaten and nervous young man. He’s going out not in a blaze of glory but simply continuing on, toward freedom and nowhere – like anybody.