The Prison film depends on a clear thematic dichotomy – long term confinement bleeds out individualism, forcing one to align based on creed and skin color in order to survive. But no matter the locale or level of brutality, these films often end with physical death or mental rebirth, often both simultaneously.
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, a dynamic crime film charting the six-year prison term of a young French Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim), slyly subverts these familiar conventions to mask a deeper personal guilt evolving over this specific period of time. The conflict waging within Malik transcends the film’s occasional virtuoso style (slow motion/freeze frame) and meandering plot, deepening the quiet moments inside cells, waiting and longing for something, anything.
During a brilliant opening act, Audiard pushes Malik’s withering body to the side of the frame, painting him into corners, making him ripe for the picking. When a Corsican gang leader named Luciani (Niels Arestrup) needs to kill an Arab snitch, he pounces on Malik and gives him an impossible and iconic choice – kill or be killed. Malik’s clumsy and haunting preparation is only tonally eclipsed by the messy, blood-drenched execution of the murder. Unlike other films of this ilk, it’s an act that literally haunts Malik for the rest of the film.
Most interestingly, Malik begins to see his physical confinement as liberating while his mental framework turns increasingly fragile. But because A Prophet is all about the process of prison life, the ebbs and flows of drug dealing, corruption, and murder, Malik does not wilt under the increasing pressure from all sides. Even though he is seen as a traitor by his Arab brethren and a servant by the Corsican who protects him, Malik begins to understand how to play the game and disavow his demons.
Ultimately, Audiard skirts these character-driven moments for plodding revenge twists and moral comeuppance, diminishing the impact of Malik’s layered journey through hell. But these early indications of guilt and remorse linger throughout the lengthy narrative, ghostly reminders of the prison process and all it’s intricate, tragic machinations.