Twenty minutes into Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” prisoner Malik El Djebena is faced with a terrifying decision. Unwillingly contracted to commit murder, he must kill or be killed.
“A Prophet” forces viewers into an awkward position, as they watch every detail of this brutal murder in a small prison cell. Blood coats the walls, and Malik (Tahar Rahim) places the weapon, a razor, in the dead prisoner’s hand. He uses his shirt to soak up the blood pooling on the prison floor.
The complex and brutal nature of the film reflects Malik’s own confused personality. Malik begins this journey a victim of a corrupt system and ends a hardened criminal. Rahim captures this transformation with great maturity. The film’s brutal depiction of a young man’s descent into violence gives viewers little room to empathize with a young, naive and complex character.
It is not clear whether Malik is guilty of the crime he committed outside of prison, and unlike many prison films, it doesn’t really matter. The film devotes little time to reflecting on Malik’s life before his six-year sentence. “A Prophet” rejects a cliché moral lesson, as well. The irony within the narrative is clear: A prison system purported to rehabilitate produces criminals instead.
The film deals with issues of moral ambiguity and guilt. More than two and a half hours in length, “A Prophet” gives viewers plenty of time to observe Malik in his claustrophobic and dirty prison cell. The film is compelling because it does not offer viewers an easy answer regarding Malik’s complicity in these crimes.
This film is not a story about the triumph of the human spirit. The intricacy and ambiguity of “A Prophet” make the film all the more frightening — these criminals seem devoid of moral conscience, and the story shirks conventional prison movie clichés. Audiard portrays violence realistically and unflinchingly. The camera does not shy away from uncomfortable moments of brutality.
The cinematography is gritty and cold, allowing Audiard to portray a small prison culture of corruption and tyranny. The white concrete walls of this run-down prison seem especially intimidating and dilapidated. After two hours viewers feel choked and spent from being trapped in a world where physical force and intimidation trump moral strength.
“A Prophet” was written by Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard and directed by Jacques Audiard.