A Prophet follows Malik’s struggle not just for mere existence, but also for individual identity in a world where a man alone is nothing.
Straddling everyone. It's not too great on your balls.
-- Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi)
A Prophet (Un prophète) begins in darkness. A small portal of light appears, gradually revealing the handcuffed, bruised, and disheveled Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim). A prison admissions officer tells him, “You’re an adult now. You go to the joint. You’re in with the big guys.” In the eyes of the state, the 19-year-old is an adult, fit for adult punishment. He has no home, no friends, relatives or enemies (inside the prison or out), and he can barely sign his own name. He’s stripped naked and sent inside.
Malik's is a body without human rights, exiled from the state’s protection into the realm of the “big guys.” His survival depends on his ability to find a place among them. A Prophet follows Malik’s struggle not just for mere existence, but also for individual identity in a world where a man alone is nothing. Here, uneven fluorescent lighting bleaches the color from everything, especially human faces. The walls are institutional blue and sea-foam green, mostly grey with grime. Nothing, especially prisoner’s uniforms, looks clean. Every shot shows evidence of long-term neglect. The handheld camerawork conveys the men's jittery paranoia -- or the perpetual vigilance they've learned in order to live.
The lord of this kingdom is Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican crime boss running his syndicate from inside the prison. A small band of fellow Corsicans still supports him, and he has bought off guards and lawyers. But his power has waned as he's aged. Arestrup subtly plays a once-potent man whose rage now barely conceals his bewilderment and fear; when he warns Malik that he needs "friends," he's also talking about himself. In an especially poignant scene, Luciani consults a lawyer who says he’ll never leave prison. As the words sink in, the old Corsican looks out the window, his eye lingering on the dead leaves pressed against the sill.
Even in his decline, Luciani makes decisions as to who lives and dies. He makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse: kill another inmate, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), in exchange for protection. "Just remember: now that you're in on it, if you don't kill him,” Luciani declares, “I kill you." Pale and shaking, Malik carries out the bloody murder, earning Luciani’s protection, but not his respect. The Corsicans see him as an outsider: he doesn’t speak their language or share their blood. As ambitious and wily as Malik may be, he remains liminal, never quite an Arab (speaking Arabic but not associating with other Arabs), never quite Corsican (protected by them, but treated as a servant).
As he is rejected, Malik also rejects group affiliations, assuming a sort of fictional independence. But, Luciani reminds him, he doesn't get to decide who he is: “You have Luciani written all over your face. People look at you and they see me." It's clear too that Malik reacts out of his own distrust and anger. When a Muslim asks for help from the Corsicans, Malik asks why he should bother. What can the Muslim offer him? "Brotherhood," the Muslim replies. Malik shoots back, “So I should make up for being their slave by being yours?"
In his isolation, the film suggests Malik has an inexplicable "holiness." He consorts with the spirit of Reyeb, whose death initiated Malik's transformation from homo sacer to big guy. His experience is framed by spiritual allusions that remain vague: he spends 40 days and 40 nights in solitary confinement, he has a murky dream-premonition that later saves his life, and he survives a close encounter with several bullets. As much as these events justify the film’s title, they are also underdeveloped, if not irrelevant. This added (and occasionally distracting) dimension is unnecessary. Malik remains a profoundly compelling enigma, an effect created in large part by Rahim's multi-layered performance. At the film’s conclusion, Malik remains alone and unknown, his face filling the screen one more time, large and unreadable.