Directed by Jacques Audiard
For my money, the prison movie is the most mystifying of genres. I don’t understand why people continue to make prison movies, and I don’t understand why people who aren’t paid to do so go to see them. For two hours, we viewers find ourselves, like the characters themselves, trapped with a bunch of bad guys and crazies in a confined space of surpassing ugliness. The more powerful the movie, the more unpleasant the sensation of confinement it induces.
If the story centers on someone unjustly jailed, as many prison movies do, the experience of watching that person navigate through the horrors of life in lockup can be extremely upsetting. And if the story is about someone who is in jail for good reason, the movie only works if it makes you root for him, which makes you emotionally complicit in his crimes, and is therefore upsetting in another way.
That is exactly what happens in the celebrated new French film A Prophet, which won every award in France last year and was favored to win the Oscar last month for best foreign film (in the end, some Argentine movie nobody ever heard of took the statue). We’re never told why the 19-year-old Malik is in prison outside Paris, but over the course of the movie’s 150 minutes, we learn he spent most of his youth in juvenile detention, which suggests he has not been up to good before we first see him.
Early on in the film, Malik is blackmailed by the leader of a Corsican prison gang into murdering a fellow Muslim. A desperate Malik, who is sullen but soft and lonely, tries to get out of it any way he can, but he can’t. He commits the murder, in horrifyingly bloody fashion, even after the fellow Muslim shows him some kindness and offers him good advice.
It turns out that the murder is the best thing that ever happened to Malik. He follows the good advice—to learn to read and start planning for his life out of prison—and becomes a confidant of the gang’s leader. The sullen boy we first encountered turns out to be something of a genius, with a Machiavellian cast of mind and the ability to learn obscure languages (Corsu, the Italian argot spoken on Corsica) simply by being in proximity to them.
Cowriter/director Jacques Audiard makes us take Malik’s personal growth and his unexpected social brilliance on faith. We see that everyone trusts Malik, though nobody should; everyone likes Malik, though he gives them no reason to; everyone is impressed by him, though he’s so recessive it’s hard to see why. Eventually, Malik receives permission to travel outside the prison for job training 12 hours at a time, and uses those 12 hours to run increasingly hazardous and complex errands for the Corsican boss and his own growing network of drug dealers and gangsters.
It would be churlish to say that what happens in the course of A Prophet is implausible, since most movies are implausible; but a movie about an imprisoned felon who seems to move about almost at will in the course of its final 90 minutes stretches even implausibility to the breaking point. And yet the fact that A Prophet escapes from its prison setting helps make it the riveting, even exhilarating, picture it is.
It turns out that A Prophet is not a prison picture at all; rather, it’s a story about the education of a master criminal. In this respect, if in no other, it evokes The Shawshank Redemption, which is probably the most popular behind-bars movie ever made. Shawshank pulls a clever trick on its audience through a marvelous third-act twist that reveals what you have been watching isn’t really a prison picture after all but a heist movie, a more somber and less comic but no less exciting con than the one in The Sting. And it’s structured so that, after it establishes the prison setting, the characters are allowed to leave the grounds to do all sorts of things in the world beyond its walls.
A Prophet is wholly involving and very much worth seeing, but it has a whole lot less on its mind than it first appears to have. Malik’s Muslim heritage suggests the movie will explore some of the themes of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, but it turns out to be a red herring of a kind. That is true as well of the movie’s peculiar spiritual aspect, in which Malik is visited by ghosts and has a precognitive vision that helps explain A Prophet’s otherwise elusive title. The spiritual stuff allows Audiard to pull off some neat shots; but they don’t enrich the movie, they just give it an illusory depth.
It’s hard to say what this movie is about, and that may be because it’s really about nothing. And that is true as well of most prison movies, which are, in the final analysis, just grueling studies in claustrophobia.