What About It?
(For a full summary of the film, scroll to "What Happens?")
A Prophet is an interesting film in that it's actually a good example of several different kinds of movies. It's a prison movie as much as it is a gangster movie and it certainly gives detail and attention to both sides. Prison life is shown as gritty and dangerous, survival dependent on more loyalties than you could manage. The division between the Muslims and the Corsicans is especially clear. But while it presents ethnic and racial struggles as a part of this existence, they are only a part of it. Survival in this prison is dependent on loyalty to a larger group, whether you feel you need it or not. Initially the control of the prison is obscenely in Cesar's hands, as he uses even guards with impunity. The balance of power changes a bit, and eventually the Corsican's numbers are thinned, thanks to a court decision, and some bad decisions. For Malik who initially doesn't want to make any choice at all, content to be on his own, his placement with fellow Arabs is the very thing which forces him to be tied to the Corsicans. His proximity to Rayeb, the thing which Cesar needs to use. His options are taken away, he can do commit murder for the Corsicans or be killed himself. Cesar at the beginning is too powerful for anyone to protect him from.
Audiard gives us a realistic prison environment. It's not pretty or glamorous, but it does have its own rules. And even Cesar, who essentially runs the place, must at times follow the appropriate channels, just like everyone else. Guards can be made to turn their heads, so as to miss a murder or a blow job, but they need to be dealt with. It's a very structured manipulation of the system, which allows Cesar's power to be eroded over the course of the film, by the court decision, his own bosses, and by Malik's actions. The prison and Cesar are both tied to convention. Cesar's rules require him to be contemptuous of Arabs, despite the fact that Malik is the most competent of his gang, he can't help but treat him and speak to him, as a servant. Cesar himself remarks on this, but only by asking Malik about his behavior. It's telling that Malik doesn't dignify the question with a straight answer, deflecting it with the contempt that it deserves. Malik points out that he performs tasks because he is asked, but makes Cesar admit that he doesn't really care about his feelings on the matter.
The performances here are all fantastic and completely believable. These are not stock characters, but people that live with any number of factors on their minds at any given moment. Niels Arestrup's Cesar is wonderful, an aged man, used to power, who by all appearances, can't face the fact that it's slipping. He is equally convincing as prison controller, or the man who lost his grip but can't face it. He's a man with many blind spots, most caused by his failure to acknowledge that he can't always be the center of the universe. Adel Bencherif is amazing as Ryad, his performance making a deep friendship believable, and reminding us that there is more to Malik than what Cesar wants. Tahar Rahim is perfect in an interesting role, where he is the star without calling for star recognition. His blankness is his characters main feature, although he fills it in as he goes.
The character of Malik is interesting in that he is not at all your typical gangster on the rise. We first meet him as someone with no direction at all. We're told that he beat up some cops but the aggression is not obvious in him. He is reactive, but has no skills. He can't work or read or write. In a very real sense, his life education only starts at his incarceration. He has little interest in learning anything at first, and it's his learning to murder that sets him on the path to reading and writing. His victim, Rayeb is the first to tell him he can make use of his time. Making use of time is a concept it seems he's never encountered before. Clearly, his interaction with Rayeb made a deep impression, and his visions of the man seem more than a symptom of guilt. Rayeb doesn't appear to give him a lecture, as much as to give him company. He seems to accept this easily, perhaps moreso after Rayeb is dead and the sexual element which repelled him is a non factor.
Quickly after Rayeb's murder, Malik decides to learn, and once his mind is engaged, he really enjoys learning. Not content to read and write in his own language, he learns Corsican on his own. This insatiable need for learning extend to his whole life, including his criminal activities. Once on that path, he is unable to sit by idly and must learn more about everything he encounters. He is also unable to say he works for anyone but himself although this would have made his life easier many times. He is a quick study, as we see on his first leave day. Cesar has arranged some business for him but he also manages to start his own business completely independent of Cesar in the course of one day out. But again, he is not the typical gangster, out to make a spectacle of himself or his power. He is more interested in using all of his tools to their best effect. When he makes a connection, he makes sure that he puts it use, as with Latif. What should have been a grudge is turned into a long term business assett. His limited experience at the beginning proves an assett to him once he starts moving forward. He isn't aware of what he can and can't do. When speaking with Lattrache, you would think that the last thing he should do is admit that he killed Lattrache's friend. But it's this admission which forces Lattrache to revaluate his own thinking towards Malik, changing an unpleasant negotiation on Cesar's behalf into his own deep and personal connection. Malik is content to keep his own counsel, although he's always open to being informed.This is not a usual gangster trait and makes it appear fairly easy for him to gain power.
Malik's true nature comes through in his relationships. His relationship with Cesar being the largest one. He owes Cesar a great deal, good and bad both. He doesn't deny that, yet he won't act in a way he doesn't feel either. He will make coffee when asked, but he won't say he "works for" Cesar or even that Cesar "protects" him, knowing that however valuable he is, Cesar will always see him as a "filthy Arab." Cesar will use Malik to keep an eye on his own men, but he'll never really treat him with respect. It's fitting that Malik cuts Cesar's power, not by an action, but by intentional inaction. He gladly kills Cesar's intended targets, except for Cesar's direct boss, the one who would take the attempt the most personally. Malik turns away from revenge, in the case of Cesar and in the case of Latif as well, another trait which a gangster doesn't usually have. He doesn't cut off his nose to spite his face. For Malik, relationships are his currency, whether with Jordi, Ryad, Cesar, or Lattrache. He build relationships and honors them, but only ever works for himself. He doesn't stop Cesar from undoing himself, but it isn't his hand that knocks Cesar down.
Malik's character pays attention and he's "a prophet" in that he speaks for something larger than himself. He has constructive loyalties everywhere and builds with them typically, rather than settle into a label, his main insistence being that he works for himself. This is not necessarily mystical as much as it's practical. He sees a deer crossing sign before he sees a deer hitting the car. He is able to say things that others wouldn't say, such as admitting that he murdered Rayeb. When faced with an armored car, he simply opens the door. His lack of pretense is what makes him unusual and "prophetic" unbound by conventional knowledge. He does and says based on what he sees, which makes him a voice outside the norm. Whether his visions of Rayeb are actual or hallucinations isn't clear, but they are real to him in any event.
While there is certainly a bit of religious symbolism in the film, it's established that Malik is not concerned terribly with religion as a thing on it's own. The references may occur to the character and add depth to the world, but I didn't feel the focus was there. He's twice asked about eating pork and his answer both times is a lack of concern. His character is not one seeking redemption, even the opposite at times. He's a blank character, seeking knowledge and depth, gradually becoming aware of his own vision and filling himself in. When Lattrache tells him "Fuck, you've come a long way." he isn't referring to the physical journey but the mental/spiritual one that is obvious to him. A prophet is typically a voice that speaks truth, not someone looking to grab power. While his actions at times suggest a usurper mentality, and he even mentions "owning the market" he isn't out for power as a goal and it doesn't hold his interest. He doesn't overthrow Cesar to become a new Cesar, instead he leaves the prison and attends to his new life. While he certainly retains the power he's built, it isn't what he's about, just a tool he uses to inform himself. He never settles for his own victimization, but finds an active part to play. Although his actions can be morally questionable they are sensible given the facts at hand.
This is a film well worth seeing. It has terrific performances and a realistic and interesting world. The characters go outside the lines you expect. It's gritty and raw but full of compassion and hope just the same. It's great to see this character and story move outside the genre conventions and define themselves. It makes statements about religon and society, but treats such observations as part of the background, like the prison or city he's in. Everything around him informs his decisions, but ultimately it's all up to him.
19 year old Arab, Malik, (Tahar Rahim) is sentenced to 6 years in Brecourt, a French prison. We first see him beginning his sentence. When he's questioned by a guard, we learn that he beat up some cops, and that he has no family, job skills or any firm religious convictions.
Malik keeps to himself, a fact which makes him easy prey for athers. He quickly has his sneakers taken from him, and although he fights back, he finds there's little he can do.
An influential inmate and Corsican gang leader Cesar (Niels Arestrup) has almost free reign over the prison, including influence with the guards. Cesar is asked to kill another Arab man, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) who is incarcerated while waiting for a trial at which he will testify. With ten days before the trial date Cesar has very little time to accomplish this, particularly since the man stays in his cell all day in the Muslim cell block.
Reyeb happens to be neigbors with Malik. Malik is repulsed when Reyeb offers him hash in the showers in exchange for oral sex (Malik has no money.) Cesar however quickly learns that Reyeb spoke to Malik and informs Malik that he is to befriend Reyeb and then kill him in exchange for the protection of Cesar's Corsican gang. Malik is also informed that if he fails, Cesar will kill him, since he's now, "in on it." Cesar's men help Malik prepare, showing him how to hide a razor blade in his mouth. The plan is that he will act as if he's going to perform fellatio and then spring up and cut Reyeb's neck with the razor in his mouth.
Malik agrees to make a deal with Reyeb, who then bribes a guard to let Malik into his cell. Reyeb is courteous offering coffee, and finding out that Malik is illeterate, he encourages him to use his prison time to learn to read. Malik with some struggling, manages to cut Reyeb's throat, making a big mess. Due to Cesar's influence, however, he gets away with it and is then under Cesar's protection.
Malik starts learning to read and write. He also has violent dreams of the struggle with Reyeb, and "sees" Reyeb in his cell wishing him a happy birthday. Although part of Cesar's gang now, Malik still naturally keeps to himself. Being an Arab, he doesn't fit in naturally with the Corsicans, some of whom resent an Arab being present with them. Cesar, however, uses Malik's close quarters with the Muslims to keep informed. Malik begins to learn to speak Corsican as well. He's helped with his studies by another Arab inmate, Ryad (Adel Bencerif) And the two start developing a friendship. Some fellow Arab's start resenting Malik as well, treating him as a Corsican.
A court ruling occurs which causes a shuffling of Corsican prisoners to a prison "closer to home" and promises to leave Cesar without much of a gang. Ryad tells Malik he has testicular cancer and is getting out soon for treatment. Without the rest of the gang, Cesar and Malik spend more time together. Malik reveals that he's learned Corsican, which initially upsets Cesar, who sees it as "spying." He quickly comes around though, and gives Malik a phone and gets him moved to the cell next to him, along with setting up a job as porter, so Malik can be his "eyes and ears." Malik is pleased with his new cell and it's TV and refrigerator. Malik takes his "eyes and ears" job very seriously, even keeping tabs on the other Corsicans left (who don't know he speaks their language.) In short order, Malik gets to know everyone in the prison. Malik also starts doing business with another inmate, Jordi (Reda Kateb) Jordi is wary, because Malik is with the Corsicans, but Malik insists that he works for himself. Jordi discusses his plans after release, which are to deal massive amounts of drugs. Malik doesn't reveal any plans of his own.
Cesar asks Malik what he knows about his business. He also tells Malik that he can apply for leave days since he's already done three years of his sentence. He instructs Malik to apply for parole, insisting that he'll have the application treated "with priority." Cesar offers Malik the chance to work for him on the outside. Malik meets with his lawyer, bringing Cesar along. Cesar tells the lawyer to call one of his contacts, who will tell him what to do.
Ryad sends a letter, telling Malik that things are tough outside, and that he has a new baby and a telemarketing job. Malik, on leave, soon meets Ryad out of prison, and becomes the godfather to Ryad's kid. Jordi starts pressuring Malik to bring him drugs from outside, although Malik is hesitant to risk everything for a couple of joints. Reyeb still appears to Malik, who now treats him as if he's nothing out of the ordinary.
Ryad helps him get a job with a mechanic. He also runs "errands" for Cesar, dealing with his contacts outside, who have been assured that Malik asks no questions. His first job is to drop off a briefcase, which has a hitch in that the recipient was not expecting an Arab. They check the case with Malik held at gunpoint, and satisfied that it's what it should be, they give Malik Santi, one of Cesar's they'd been holding (and Malik knew nothing about.)
Malik and Ryad start running a drug operation outside, working with Jordi inside. Cesar suspects other activities and tells Malik that his leave "belongs to him." Malik doesn't reveal his other operations. During his prison time, he gets closer with Cesar, telling him that he can no longer spy on the Arabs as he's now Corsican to them. Malik doesn't care for Cesar's animosity towards Arabs, although he helps Cesar's concern over the Arab's now greater numbers by telling Cesar to have some guards start hassling them, which will cause them to ask Cesar for help.It works according to Malik's plan and the Arab's approach him to ask for Cesar's help, leaving the Arabs indebted to him.
Ryad is hijacked while Malik is inside by Latif, the Egyptian, (Mamadou Minte) who takes the Ryad's drugs and then demands money as well. Malik instructs that they give Latif what he wants. Malik is concerned that after three days he has no news of Ryad, although Jordi assures him that they'll hear as soon as there is news. Malik learns from the Muslims that Latif's brother in law is imprisoned with them. The Muslim's give Malik two men to help, and he sets up an operation to take Latif's brother in law's mother hostage outside, while he beats the brother in law inside with a sock full of batteries and tells him to tell Latif to return Ryad and his drugs if he wants to see his mother again.
Cesar confronts Malik about Jordi, who he calls "the gypsy" He admits that he's dealing hash with Jordi, and Cesar then asks how he gets it into the prison. Malik assumes he wants a cut but Cesar assures him that it's his business. He then gets angry however, because his smuggling method could get him caught which would risk his leave. Cesar wounds Malik in the eye with a spoon and the tells him to "get lost." Cesar reminds him again that everything he does is due to his influence.
Malik is given a special assignment by Cesar. On his next leave he is to negotiate for him, with a Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi) in Marseillles to "cut out the Italians." This requires him to take a flight, which he's never done before, in order to get back the same day. On his leave day we see that Ryad has been released although he still looks beat up., he drives Malik to the airport. Malik meets the people for Cesar, and they insist on tying his hands while they drive him to Lattrache. Lattrache is suspicious of Malik, not understanding why an Arab would work for Corsicans. Malik takes offense when it's suggested that he sucks them off, which prompts Lattrache to put a gun to his head. Lattrache reveals that he had a friend named Rayeb, who never left prison. He demands to know if Cesar had Rayeb wasted. The moment is broken when Malik sees a deer crossing sign and tells them an animal is coming just before the car hits a deer. Outside the car Lattrache is still puzzled and asks "What's your thing? How do you do it? Are you a prophet or something?"
Malik tells Lattraches that he killed Rayeb. Lattrache answers "Fuck, you've come a long way." Lattrache's men gather the deer and then go their destination, where he gets cleaned up.
At their destination, now with his hands free, Lattrache keeps calling him "prophet." He asks how he manages to straddle all his loyalties and asks if Cesar knows that the Italians have a Corsican snitch. Lattrache tells Malik he'll accept the offer if Cesar finds the snitch and cleans house. Malik then asks Lattrache for a personal favor, that he tell Latif the Egyptian, that the two of them work together.
Returning home, Malik tells Ryad that he'll meet with Latif as Lattrache will tell Latif to meet with them. Ryad is surprised at this since Malik was meeting Lattrache for the Corsicans rather than his own interests. Malik tells him to work it out so that they pool resources with Latif, saying "we take over the market and we rule." Ryad reveals that he's sick again.He arrives back at prison 30 minutes late but they let it go. Cesar is discussing the Corsican snitch with his lawyer, who tells Cesar that he is not to worry about it as it's being handled. When he's alone with Cesar, Cesar asks "Why do you still make the coffee? Why do you act the servant? You go out for me, you see Sampiero, you see Lattrache. You deal with my business, the casinos, the Lingherris, and when I ask for a coffee, you hop to it. Nothing to say?"
Malik: What's the question? Why do I do it, or how does it make me feel? I do it because you ask. Want to know how I feel?
Cesar: I couldn't care less.
Malik: Still need me?
Cesar: You're the one who needs me.
Malik: Can I go?
Outside, Ryad picks up their take from Latif, and following Malik's instructions drops off his share at a mosque for an Imam. In prison, the Muslim's corner him and ask him if it was dirty money. They head of the Muslims in prison, tells him not to go straight to the Imam again, as he should go through them. And suspects that he only gave the money to set up the meeting with him.
Cesar asks Malik if they can speak sincerely, telling him he wants to ask a favor "not because you work for me, but because I trust you.Understand the difference?" Cesar reveals that he say one of his men getting information and knows who the snitch is. He tells Malik that he wants him to form a team to whack his bosses in Paris. Malik considers it and Ryad urges him to accept, as he only has 6 months to live anyway. He reminds Malik that it will make his future easier when he gets out, since he won't be around, but the job will help take care of his kid. Malik agrees and Cesar tells him he'll have his man get in touch with Ryad. Malik's nerves start getting too him and he sees Rayeb spinning in circles and chanting. Ryad meets with him, panicked, tells him his team won't be any good for the job, and that Cesar's man, Vettori, treats them like shit, but Malik insists that they do it, finally proposing that he and Ryad do it themselves.
Malik gets leave and he and Ryad drive up to Vettori in a van. He asks about the rest of the team, and they tell him they're in the back, but then mace him in the eyes and beat him, before heading to the job. They miss one opportunity due to too many onlookers in the street. They follow the targets, who are in an armored car. Malik solves the problem by simply opening the door of their car and firing when they stop. The firing in the car causes him to lose his hearing for a bit. Malik leaves one of them alive however, Marcaggi, Cesar's direct boss. He informs Marcaggi that Cesar wanted him killed, but tells him he won't do it, and says "get your revenge." Malik elects not to return to prison that day, knowing he'll get time "in the hole." staying at Ryad's instead. Ryad questions him about it, and Malik says he'll be in the hole while they tear each other apart. Ryad says that he isn't going to do chemom as it's hopeless anyway. Malik has breakfast with Ryad and his wife and kid, spending time with with the child, before returning to prison.
He's immediately escorted to solitary where he jogs in his cell and we see bloody upheaval going on in the main prison. Ryad dies in the outside world. Malik is released from solitary and he talks with the Arabs in the yard. We see Cesar sitting alone. He motions with his head for Malik to join him, but he ignores him, which causes Cesar to get up and approach, until some Arabs knock him down.
Malik is released and allowed to claim his personal items which are nothing more than a cigartte and a bill. Ryad's wife and child are there to meet him. They walk down the middle of the road as cars follow behind them.