The story begins as young anti-hero Malik, played with stoic understatement throughout by Tahar Rahim, begins a 6 year prison sentence. He’s 19, illiterate and totally alone, but soon finds himself faced with a horrific ultimatum: either kill a man on behalf of a group of Corsican prisoners, or be killed by them. And so follows a study of Malik’s ability to survive and overcome the situation he finds himself in. There is little to sugar a particularly bitter pill, but the narrative ebbs and flows throughout, and the performances are utterly believable. There’s also a healthy dollop of social commentary, with issues of race and rehabilitation explored, though the lack of sentiment means this never feels self conscious.
Whether you think A Prophet works will arguably depends on whether you find Malik a sufficiently sympathetic character. The friend who I saw this with found him distant, but for me, there are enough clues to his vulnerability to render his story both compelling and heroic. The tension of the drama surrounding him, too, is wonderfully energetic.
If I had one criticism to make, it would be the lack of music. As a foreign language film, it’s inevitable that you subconsciously crave a universal language to describe the action, but music is used sparingly. French cinema is often focused on dialogue above spectacle, but I felt the film would have retained its credibility with a more prominent soundtrack.
A Prophet was feted in Cannes where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and many critics have said it was the best thing they saw last year. I can see what all the fuss was about. It won’t make you feel warm and fuzzy – Porridge it is not - but this is an absorbing and tightly directed film that you’ll kick yourself if you miss.