A Prophet (Un Prophète) Review
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In most cities around the country, it isn’t until after the Oscar ceremony that the year’s foreign language nominees start to show up in theaters. For some, it takes months—if they ever show at all. But I’ve found that, when they finally do arrive, they’re almost always worth planning a special trip to the theater, if only for the refreshingly un-Hollywood experience that they provide.

This year’s French nominee, A Prophet, tells the story of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old convict who, after spending his life in and out of juvenile detention centers, is sentenced to his first prison term. As Malik tries to adjust to life on the inside, he struggles to find his place. Most of his fellow prisoners see him as an Arab—but he’s never been religious, so he doesn’t fit in with the Muslim group.

Instead, Malik is approached by the Corsican gang that rules the prison yard. The leader, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a kind of prison Godfather, orders Malik to perform a hit on another prisoner. If he complies, he’ll have the Corsicans’ protection. If not…well, there will be two dead prisoners to deal with.

Reluctantly, Malik does as he’s told—and he’s cautiously accepted by the Corsicans. Gradually, he gets closer to César—all the while making other important connections to set himself up in a place of power, both in and out of prison.

Newcomer Tahar Rahim gives an absolutely riveting performance in director Jacques Audiard’s dark and gritty prison drama. It’s a challenging role—one that’s quite often a solitary one—but the young actor is able to pull viewers into Malik’s story from the very first scene.

Thanks to Rahim’s performance (as well as some skillful screenwriting), you’ll quickly forget that Malik is a life-long criminal—who’s apparently doing time for assaulting a police officer. Instead, you’ll see him as a lonely kid. He has no family or friends—no one to give him advice…or money for cigarettes. All he has is a greedy gang of Corsicans—whose friendship doesn’t come cheap—along with just a few others who guide him throughout his sentence (though not necessarily in the right direction). Despite Malik’s past (and present) offenses, though, you’ll still find yourself caring about what happens to him.

At the same time, though, after watching A Prophet, you might feel as if you, too, endured a six-year sentence. You’ll certainly feel every last one of the film’s 155 minutes. The dark and gloomy drama moves at the unhurried pace of a lengthy prison term—and, between the occasional bursts of action and suspense, the pace tends to drag. In a way, that’s to be expected. After all, this isn’t a big-budget Hollywood shoot-‘em-up; it’s a weighty French drama. The story is rather complex—and you’ll have to pay close attention to figure out how Malik plays the game to make it work in his favor. Still, the film could have easily been 30—or even 45—minutes shorter and told the same story without feeling as oppressive.

If you have the time and the ability to sit still for long periods of time, A Prophet is a gritty and captivating foreign drama. Just be prepared for a long (and rather exhausting) haul—and, by all means, skip the giant cup of coffee on your way into the theater.

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