At 155 minutes, French prison film “A Prophet” is a long movie. That makes sense: prison is long. To give an audience a taste of what that feels like, a prison movie needs to be long too. It’s awfully tough to capture the feeling of being locked up, alone and isolated, for years or decades, in an hour-and-a-half. So “A Prophet”‘s flaws are ones of focus rather than length. When it narrows in on the harsh realities of this prison, it’s good enough to rank with greats of the genre like Jules Dassin’s “Brute Force,” “Escape From Alcatraz” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” But eventually, the incarcerated hero of “A Prophet” gets a bit comfortable in prison, and at that point, the film does too. Once that happens, all that pent-up nervous energy, all that ethnographic detail about life on the inside, seeps out of the film.
That hero we join on his journey through the French correctional system is named Malik (Tahar Rahim). Before he arrives at prison, he tells his lawyer he didn’t commit the crime — assaulting a police officer — he is about to be imprisoned for. Whether that is true or not, Malik quickly realizes he’ll have to commit acts even worse than that if he’s going to survive. If there’s a single clear message to take away from director Jacques Audiard’s film, it’s that jail doesn’t produce better men, it produces better criminals.
At first, Malik is a loner, which makes him an easy target for sneak attacks in the yard from guys looking for a new pair of sneakers. He’s a man with little sense of self — we’ll learn later he dropped out of school at age 11 and never knew his parents — and he has no preconceived allegiance to either of the jail’s two warring factions: the Muslims and the Corsicans, led by César (Niels Arestrup).
César gives the new fish an assignment: gain the trust of a new Muslim prisoner awaiting trial, get close to him with an offer of oral sex, and then murder him during the act with a straight razor he must learn to conceal in his mouth. If Malik refuses, César will have him killed. Faced with no alternative — even the warden is on César’s payroll — Malik goes through with the assassination in a messy, unglamorous, harrowing scene that is one of the film’s best. Afterward, the ghost of Malik’s victim haunts his cell. Malik’s not particularly scared of him — really, he’s just glad to have the company.
After proving his worth, Malik is welcomed into César’s gang, though his Muslim heritage means he’s never fully accepted into the group. Later, he rises up through the Corsican organization in a modern-day, jail-set iteration of old gangster classics like “Scarface” or “The Public Enemy.” And though these scenes are just as well-directed and acted as the earlier ones, they’re lacking in anxiety and danger as Audiard trades in the skillful observations that made the film unique for some set-pieces we’ve seen many times before.
From there, “A Prophet” becomes a bit repetitive. César engineers a work release program for Malik, sending him out on a variety of errands beyond the prison gates, and sending the film off on a perpetual cycle of travel, dirty deeds and return. Repetition can be good for a prison movie — prison life is certainly repetitive — but not if it comes at the expense of its carefully constructed atmosphere of claustrophobia.
This solid, if overhyped, film — it won the Grand Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — works best in those early ethnographic sequences that are so well done that we feel like we’re the ones who’ve been thrown to the wolves, locked inside this world at a point where the end seems like a very long way off.