We’ve seen this story before. The reluctant nice guy gets pulled into working for the mob and grows into a cunning, ruthless leader of organized crime. It was Michael Corleone in The Godfather and Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II.
And we’ve seen this story before. Prison is a Darwinian society where brutal attacks are necessary for survival. Think Bad Boys. Or American Me. Or even The Shawshank Redemption.
A Prophet, a French movie nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2010, is not particularly original. It combines those two plotlines in presenting an inside look at the Corsican gangs operating in Gallic prisons. It just happens to tell those stories very well.
As a prison movie, it would rank in our all-time Top 10. As a gangster movie, not as high, but we do heartily recommend it.
The film is directed by Jacques Audiard, whom critics delight in calling “The French Scorsese.” That certainly seems an overstatement. We will say that A Prophet does carry some of the same raw intensity seen in Scorsese’s earlier works, like Taxi Driver, if not the master’s craftsmanship.
A Prophet tells the story of Malik El Djebena, a 19-year-old French Arab sent to prison for six years for assaulting a cop—a charge he denies all the way. It’s been a tough life for Malik, an illiterate street urchin. He’s small and shy, and during his first day in the yard he gets beaten for his sneakers. This prisoner is more victim than criminal.
He soon meets Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), an aging Corsican mobster who looks like Don Corleone in sweatpants. Cesar runs dirty casinos on the outside and everything on the inside. Cesar sees value in the new kid because he provides an entry into the wing housing Arab prisoners. (On a side note, it’s interesting to learn that French prisons feature the same tribal battles as American prisons, just with different tribes.)
Cesar needs to get to an Arab prisoner who is scheduled to testify against the Corsican mob. So he orders Malik to seduce the man and then slash his throat. “But I can’t kill anyone,” Malik sobs in protest. Then you will die, he is coldly told.
The mission is accomplished in a clumsy and violent scene. And Malik, like Michael Corleone—after his infamous visit to the Italian restaurant—is on his way.
Tahar Rahim, the young French actor portraying Malik, does a good job of transforming his character. After a few more missions, you see the boy’s face hardening and his posture rising. Malik learns to read—not just books, but also the people around him. Hanging around the Corsicans in prison, he picks up the nuances of their language, without them ever suspecting he can understand them. All good skills in crime or any other vocation.
Now that he is under Cesar’s wing, Malik earns special privileges from the corrupt prison officials. He is granted 12-hour leaves, ostensibly to earn a few bucks at an auto shop, but actually to run outside errands for Cesar. There’s one frightening kidnapping scene as well as a bloody shootout on the streets of Marseilles. The business is never neat.
By this point, our aspiring mobster has learned enough to set up his own side enterprise. So Malik spends much of each 12-hour leave running a nascent drug operation with his buddy—a cancer-stricken former prisoner named Ryad (Adel Bencherif).
You know where this is going because you’ve also seen this part of the story before. Ever since 1931, when Paul Muni gunned down his capo in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, movie mob underlings have been overthrowing their bosses. And that’s what happens here.
The rise of Malik’s outside drug enterprise coincides with Cesar’s fading influence inside. Seems that most of the Corsicans have been transferred, leaving the remaining gang as weak as the prison coffee. Meanwhile, Malik makes inroads with the Arab prisoners, overcoming their resentments toward him for his ties to the Corsicans.
The malevolent Cesar becomes increasingly desperate. Malik, meanwhile, learns to get things done through guile rather than violent coercion.
“Cesar is an ogre, a father who eats his children,” Thomas Bidegain, who cowrote the movie with Audiard, told the New York Times. “But Malik is smart, so his objectives are always changing and expanding. . . . If he hadn’t gone to prison, he would never have found out that he is smart. Instead he would have been absolutely wasted, killed or OD’d at 22.”
We won’t give you the blow-by-blow (hell, the movie is 155 minutes long). But we will tell you that Audiard describes his lead character as “the anti-Scarface”—a reference to Al Pacino’s immoral, drug-crazed Tony Montana rather than to Muni’s classic character, Tony Camonte. You’ll certainly feel more empathy for Malik than you did for either of those two.
That’s especially true at the end of the movie.
Malik, who once had nothing, ends up with everything. By this point his pal Ryad is dead of cancer. But the man’s wife and son meet Malik upon his release from prison, suggesting he may finally get the family he never had. And as they stroll away from the gates, the camera pulls back to show a line of black cars following them for protection.
The kid, now a man, has put together an organization. He’s got the money, he’s got the power, he’s got the woman.
HIT: In a surreal touch, Malik is literally haunted by his first murder victim, the Arab prisoner. The dead man’s ghost—sometimes smoldering in flames—comes back to serve as Malik’s muse, giving him counsel and guidance. Rather than coming across as hokey, the device suggests a permanent bond between the dead man and his killer.
MISS: Perhaps a few things get lost in translation, but there are moments when A Prophet gets downright difficult to follow.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “If Malik doesn’t remind you of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone on his journey from innocence to corruption in The Godfather saga, well . . . he should. A Prophet is similarly, startlingly momentous.”—Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: This is a two-and-a-half-hour, subtitled French film. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys rereading the works of Camus or Sartre, view it again. If not. . . .
PIVOTAL SCENES: Malik is ordered by Cesar to rub out that fellow Arab prisoner. Malik has never killed anything. He’s petrified, and tries to avoid the job—first by blowing the whistle, then by getting thrown in solitary. But there is no refusing the powerful Cesar.
The mobster’s aides give Malik murder lessons (teaching him to hide a razor blade in his mouth and flip it with his tongue to slash another man), he gets close to the Arab and they meet in the man’s cell.
The unknowing victim is gracious to the younger Malik, offering tea and reading lessons. Malik does not want to harm the man, but he knows he must. The attack is clumsy and downright gory. Its brutality shocks Malik, as it will likely shock you. Malik then puts the razor blade in the dead man’s palm to make it appear the man killed himself. He steps away, drenched in blood.
The kid who spent most of his life being bullied is now a killer. And killing comes easier the second time. Having to choose between his soul and his life, Malik makes the only real choice he can.
REALITY CHECK: Let’s see now. A key witness in a mob trial is found with his neck slashed one week before he’s set to testify. Because the razor blade is found in his hand, everyone believes it’s a suicide? Yeah, sure.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The food in French prisons appears to be far superior to the fare offered by the American penal system. We were especially impressed with the fresh-baked loaves of bread handed to each prisoner at every meal.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Director Audiard originally wanted to entitle the film, You Gotta Serve Somebody, as a nod to Bob Dylan’s song about choosing between God and the devil. “But that was too difficult to translate into French,” Audiard told the New York Times. Audiard said the final title was not picked for religious reasons, but because the lead character “is a prophet in the sense that he designs a new kind of gangster.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: High and gruesome. If you were ever curious what occurs after a man’s carotid artery gets sliced, A Prophet is for you.
BEST LINE: Cesar, the godfather, knows his authority comes through intimidation. So when he senses he is losing his grip over the increasingly confident Malik, he tries to impress the younger man with his power.
“No longer scared of me?” Cesar asks Malik. “If you can walk around this place, it’s because I had you made a porter. If you eat, it’s thanks to me. If you dream, think, live—it’s thanks to me. . . . You live off of me.”
Cesar digs a spoon into Malik’s eye to stress the point.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Midnight Express, a classic 1978 film showing the horrors that occur after an American drug smuggler winds up in a Turkish prison.
BODY COUNT: Eight, plus one unlucky deer that strays into traffic.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”