A Prophet is one of those films that is unfortunately labelled as art-house for no other reason than it happens to be subtitled. Like “City of God” before it’s a very mainstream film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience but is unlikely to be so. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a couple of years Hollywood doesn’t take more of a gander at it and attempt a remake. I suspect that they’ll completely miss the point of the film in the process.
The film follows the six year prison sentence of a young French man of undetermined background. Is he Corsican? An Arab? This may seem like a small detail but proves critical to his situation. At odds with the rest of the prison population, with no support network and no education he is at the mercy of everyone until a horrible opportunity presents itself – kill or be killed – and it is from here that the film takes a series of unexpected turns.
Is the film a critique of the prison system? Is it a look at the question of ethnicity in France? Is it an old fashioned crime thriller? The answer to all of these questions is unsurprisingly yes and no, but the surprise is how none of these threads is allowed to dominate the story about what is necessary for our protagonist to survive prison. The question of kill or be killed feels like it will be the focus of the film but is handled in the first half hour (and in the handling commits to screen two of the most gut wrenching sequences of recent years – this is a film that fully deserves its 18 certificate) because it’s just a springboard to bigger questions. Giving too much away about what happens would spoil the joy of seeing how well it is constructed, everything has a place.
None of this would work without a charismatic lead and in Tahar Rahim the director seems to have found someone who strikes the right balance between being someone we root for because they appear to be the underdog whilst never letting us forget that he is a criminal and more than capable of killing (an assassination late in the film reinforcing how far he comes in the six years the film covers). It’s an astonishing performance but not the only one in a film where it is hard to think of a weak point. Every aspect of the film has clearly been thought about to present you with the information you need for that point – after an hour you stop trying to second guess where the film will go because it never does. The closing credits (and in particular the choice of music) reinforce this – it’s a sly joke at the audience’s expense but one you can’t help laughing at.
Hopefully the film will find a bigger audience on the small screen where word of mouth may increase its appeal, but for now it comes highly recommended if you can find somewhere that is actually showing it, it really is that good.