Award-winning A Prophet breaks out of prison clichés

French gangland drama looks good enough to eat

Award-winning A Prophet breaks out of prison clichés

The French penitentiary that provides the setting for the gangland drama A Prophet looks like a typical hellhole of criminality – with one exception. When the porters deliver meals to the inmates, they hand out the usual slop on metal trays, along with delicious-looking torpedo-sized loaves of French bread. One briefly wonders if the jailbirds have the palates of gourmands, and would riot over substandard foie gras.

When A Prophet's protagonist Malik (Tahar Rahim) arrives at the facility, he resembles a formless mass of dough about to be cooked in an oven. Over nearly two and a half compelling hours, A Prophet traces a rags-to-riches story comparable to crime classics such as Scarface. Sentenced to six years for fighting a police officer, Malik comes across as an innocent young man and virtual tabula rasa. He can't read or write, has no money or family, and seems to be an inevitable victim of the prison system. Nevertheless, a combination of necessity and ingenuity transform Malik from sacrificial lamb to crime lord.

Assigned to the Muslim cellblock thanks to his Arabic background, Malik draws the attention of the prison's Corsicans, the mafiosi who control the big house. They coerce Malik with the threat of death to murder a high-profile Arabic witness. In his brief time with the surprisingly kind witness, Malik finds inspiration to better himself. He cozies up to the Corsican faction until he becomes the right-hand man to the avuncular yet cruel boss (the charismatic Niels Arestrup). Grand Prix winner at the Cannes Film Festival and a 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, A Prophet presents intriguing lessons in prison power dynamics, drug smuggling, and how to store a razor blade in your mouth as a murder weapon.

Late in the film, a character mockingly compares Malik to a prophet because his criminal schemes link the prison's Muslim and Corsican factions. Otherwise, if the film has much to say about Islam or its social standing, the message is subtle to the point of invisibility. Malik proves indifferent to spirituality. A Prophet offers an object lesson in cultural assimilation – Malik could represent any member of a minority group who works his way up by his bootstraps. Although Malik seldom reveals his emotions through dialogue, Rahim's boyishness engenders sympathy for the role even after Malik asserts control over his situation. Far from being an easy target, Malik emerges as a master chef of criminal enterprise.