In Theaters: A Prophet

Movieline Score:

Director Jacques Audiard has said that the character of Malik, the turbulent moral center of A Prophet, is not, as the title implies, the voice of God, but a simple messenger, "a prototype of a new kind of human being." A juvenile offender transferred to an adult prison on his 19th birthday to serve out the remaining six years of his sentence, Malik (Tahar Rahim) bears both good and bad news, and it breaks over Audiard's two-and-a-half hour chronicle of his coming of age within the French penal system. The central question of the prison drama -- What does it mean to survive? -- is transposed onto the experiences of a young Arab who arrives formless and frightened but increasingly determined to get by. Audiard's new kind of human being is not a mutation or a psychopath but a ruthless adaptor, and the process is one of dubious and paradoxical rewards.

Malik's education is swift: after being robbed of his sneakers on his first yard outing, he is summoned by the leader of the prison's Corsican stronghold, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and forced to choose between his own life and that of a fellow Arab named Reyeb (Hichem Yacboubi). Malik, as we learn during his intake, has no one outside; with this murder he will gain protection, if not community, on the inside. "The idea is to leave here a little smarter," Reyeb says, moments before Malik leaps at his neck with a razor in his mouth. The sequence is ragged and horrific, powered by the probing hand-held camera work that gives much of the film its intimate urgency. In the aftermath Malik learns quickly of the prison's brutal gift economy: cigarettes, someone's life, and wild boar pate are more or less interchangeable. Under the protection of the Corsicans he is also isolated from the prison's Arabs -- different ethnic groups co-exist only through a policy of mutual exclusion.

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