‘A prophet’ tells the story of Malik, an 18 year old Arab youth who cannot read or write who is condemned to 6 years in prison. As one so young, he stands out as more vulnerable than anyone else, and is quickly taken in hand by a Corsican group of prisoners who rule the roost in this prison. This gang is headed by Cesar, a bullish autocrat, who ‘tests’ Malik by forcing him to kill a fellow prisoner. This scene was extremely vivid and powerful, but certainly not for the fainthearted (I was nearly under the chair!) Having earned the approval of the gang, Malik is now somewhat better protected and can pursue his personal aims: he begins to use his intelligence to improve his life as much as possible and to discreetly develop his own network. He’s used as a ‘go-between’ for the Corsican gang and outside business affiliates, and when he gains ‘day passes’ to the outside world, he uses these to foster his own links. He eventually succeeds in obtaining the approval of the Muslims in the prison, the rival gang, and a further struggle for power ensues, from which Malik detaches himself.
The director, Jacques Audiard, effectively conveys the universal feelings of fear and isolation which pervade prison life by letting us see life from the eyes of young Malik, and his awareness of all that he is missing out on. There is even a poetic element to the film, where Malik imagines the presence of the prisoner that he killed, which is the playing-out of his conscience. Malik, as well as learning to read and write, learns both the subtlety of power and the power of subtlety as he observes the movements and interactions of daily prison life. Prison is seen as a metaphor for society: divided and aggressive, and Malik, after six years in institutional prison life, leaves better educated and prepared for society than most people after a lifetime of conventional ‘education’.
Worth a watch, but as I said, not for the fainthearted. And also quite confusing in terms of language: it's difficult to establish Corsican as the dominant race in the prison, as it swings between different languages, and the French spoken is often of an excessively colloquial quality.