Why is it that sub-titled films are such a hard sell to English speaking audiences? In The Prophet we have a gritty, gripping crime/prison drama with more than a hint of Scorsese in its influences. While it will probably do well, it’s not going to tear up any trees in the box office – largely because it’s spoken in French and the audience actually have to glance at the bottom of the screen to get the dialogue. Well it’s their loss. This is a straight-up great thriller, character study and examination of what makes us the people we become.
We join a scared, vulnerable 19-year old (Malik El Djebena, played by the brilliant newcomer Tahar Rahim), serving a 6-year stretch for attacking a police-officer, as he’s going up to the adult prison from the juvenile detention center. If ever there was a boy in man’s world, it’s Malik. He’s out of his depth, a study in fear and naked vulnerability. He clocks the gangster mastermind who runs the prison, but keeps his distance. It’s a fruitless task. Needing a potential informant new to the prison out of the way, the mastermind puts young Malik in the ultimate human dilemma – kill the informant, or be killed. In the short term – half an hour or so of screen time – this triggers a superbly portrayed moral and personal panic and as a good a portrayal of the impact of of taking a life on the would-be killer as you are likely to see.
What that event triggers for the rest of the film, however, is even more brilliant and gripping. Set-against the shifting, seething racial tension at the heart of most globalised countries, we see a boy turning into a man. But what sort of man? Is he mad? Bad? Wise as a serpent? Innocent as dove? It’s brilliantly put-together and at times so tense you can hardly breathe. In the film’s final, subtly moving images, we are left to question the effects on the wider community Malik will rejoin as he leaves the prison. Does he leave his prison identity behind him? Or is he irrevocably changed? How can he not be – are we not all fundamentally shaped and changed by all we do every day? These are the issues this films grapples with – in the context of the biggest possible of events (killing), and one of the most fundamental aspects of our identity (ethnic).
This then, is a film about the crucible that forms the personality. It poses the question do we ever really know anybody (Malik, each other, ourselves)? Does the central character ever know himself? He seems to change and reveal aspects of his identity so often that he never knows where he stands; or is that just survival? That A Prophet does all this in the form of a gripping thriller about real people is verging on the miraculous. It left me reflecting that the only way to know myself, and that’s to know the one who formed me. Not bad for a thriller, that.