As prison dramas go, one immediately sees why Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet has garnered so much praise, not to mention a flurry of prizes, since it hit the big screen in 2009. It picked up the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Best Foreign Language Film gong courtesy of the US National Board of Review, plus the Best Film award at the London Film Festival. Technically superb with its fluid camera work and chiaroscurist compositions, the film draws you into a claustrophobic world in which the Darwinian notion of survival operates, a world that becomes a rite of passage for the film’s lead protagonist. A Prophet is a classic that aims to provide an insight into the world of Maghrebi immigrants in France.
Malik El Djebena, magnificently played by Tahir Rahim, a scared nineteen year old, is sent down for six years for assaulting an officer – a crime to which there is only ever a vague reference. He enters the prison a ‘petit Arabe’ but learns the skills to survive and prevail against all the odds. In this regard, the film could be read as a coming-of-age story. However, this ‘coming-of-age’ narrative alludes to an education that does not lead to a reformation, but makes him an expert in the world of crime. A Prophet might fall into the same bracket as movies that follow the rise of the anti-hero gangster, and indeed the film has been compared to genre classics such as Scarface (1983) and The Godfather (1972). However, such comparisons were probably drawn and spread by the film’s marketing team to help the movie gain traction in the mainstream. Audiard’s film has greater intelligence; for the most part he eschews Hollywood’s need for gloss, finesse and cool and instead anchors his film to the conventions of social realism. In doing so he offers a grim but revealing insight into the state of French prisons. It’s a moral responsibility the director is fully conscious of, having gone on record as claiming that France’s ‘social-cultural reality has been ignored by contemporary cinema’.