[caption id="attachment_30838" align="aligncenter" width="469" caption="Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena in A Prophet"][/caption]
Set in a contemporary French prison, A Prophet follows Malik El-Djebena (newcomer Tahar Rahim) through a six-year sentence that turns him from an angry, illiterate adolescent with a penchant for beating up cops to a murderous tool of the Corsican Mafia led by a Godfather-like character named Luciani. Coerced into his first murder by the Corsicans after entering prison friendless and powerless, he soon develops a taste for the money and influence organized crime can bring.
Malik, a light-skinned Arab who grew up as an orphan, also develops a taste for Corsican identity—and this is the real theme of A Prophet. As thrilling as the story is, the film's standout quality is its hard look at race relations in France, whose tensions are sharpened by the hothouse atmosphere of prison. When Malik begins to truck with the Corsican gang in exchange for their protection, he is shunned by other Arab prisoners, who all inhabit the same block, keep the same dietary restrictions, and pray together. Simultaneously, in a narrative familiar to many multi-ethnic people, the Corsicans regard him as a "dirty Arab" and treat him as a servant boy, until they have more useful errands for him.
Of course, outside prison walls, both Corsicans and Arabs are disenfranchised minorities in France—indeed, the only white French inside these prison walls are guards. Malik is a minority among minorities, determined to gain power by being the best criminal he can possibly be.
Anchoring the film is Tahar Rahim's outstanding performance, which won him two awards (for Best Actor and Best Newcomer) at the Cesars (the French Oscars) this year. Rahim captures a character on the verge of finding himself, a desperate nineteen-year-old boy who must disguise his uncertainty to survive. Tahar Rahim's Malik is one of the rarest types of characters—a sympathetic murderer. With upcoming roles in Scottish director Kevin MacDonald's and Chinese director Lou Ye's next films, he's sure to become a major player in world cinema—indeed, he already is one.
A Prophet opens tonight at the Harvard Exit and plays every day at 1:30, 4:45, and 8pm.