It’s true that lots of critics admire “A Prophet” quite a bit, but that’s nothing compared to how much it admires itself. You can tell by how seriously it takes its own story of a guy doing time behind bars – it invests so much of its skill in giving us the agony of prison life that there’s very little depth left for its characters, which creates a problem when it wants to switch gears from action to drama. Although it’s bad enough when a movie only has one note to play, this one holds it for two hours and 35 minutes. How does a movie last this long and not go anywhere worthwhile?
You’ve got to admit, though, this material might’ve worked in the right hands. On top of having to serve a six-year prison sentence, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a French hooligan who’s of Middle Eastern descent, has to deal with a pecking order where Arabs are second-class citizens. That he’d get hit on in the shower by a guy (Hichem Yacoubi) who’s trading drugs for oral sex is no surprise (most prison films touch upon that sooner or later), but he didn’t count on a gang leader named César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) ordering him to take the guy up on his offer – he tells Malik that the drug dealer’s a snitch, and wants an inside man with the guts to murder him. Although Malik’s sure he can’t go through with it, he’ll wind up getting himself killed if he doesn’t play ball.
At least there’s a bright side to doing all that dirty work: As the newest member of the jailhouse mafia, not only is he entitled to security, but he starts to earn a reputation for himself as the go-to guy who keeps the gang functioning on the outside, getting temporary releases that last 12 hours at a time. Even if he doesn’t get the respect he deserves in light of all the work he has to do for César, he seems satisfied waiting for his day in the sun, especially with the ghost of the guy he murdered to keep him company.
Though they’re not enough to save the film from its own failings, you can’t deny that the actors know what they’re doing. Arestrup in particular is pretty daring as the kingpin who rules the jailhouse with an iron fist, probably because he brings more to his character than the material can.
That character becomes even more of an asset once all the violence here starts to get to our hero, who becomes ever more desensitized as time goes by. César might come off as more than a little bit irritable, but at least he managed to hold onto some of his emotions. Even though Rahim gives Malik lots of screen presence, there’s no reason to feel for a character who has no feelings for anyone else.