'A Prophet': A French Prison Movie with Universal Appeal

>The film takes place in southern France in an area near Marseilles. It is brutal, but not as horrific as the Oz television series about a prison in America where the population broke down into three groups: blacks, Hispanics, and whites involved in white supremacy and a Nazi culture. All were vile, hating groups other than their own, and they preyed on weaker members of their own gang as well.

This movie's depiction of prison life is similar except that the demographics are Corsican and Muslim. The Corsicans are referred to as political prisoners: a reference to insurrection on the island of Corsica which is where Napoleon was born.


Sony Pictures Classics

The main character is a young Arab, Malik (Tahar Rahim), who is sentenced to six years for a crime we are not privy to but was probably assault. Malik is quickly pounced upon by the leader of the Corsicans, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Cesar forces him first to be a servant and then an extension of the gang as an assassin. At Cesar's direction, Malik murders an Arab prisoner. It is a very gory killing, and the blood of the victim spurts from his neck like a red river.

Malik is not an observant or pious Muslim. When asked by the guard if he eats pork, he responds ambivalently with both a yes and a no. He is taught the tricks of the criminal trade and introduced to the vice and brutality which takes place. The prison system, with its corrupt guards, permits one-day excursions outside the facility by prisoners. Malik is used by Cesar to exact revenge on his enemies and to engage in a lucrative drug trade.

A Prophet is not a fabulous film, but it is well worth seeing. Although it is 2 hours 29 minutes long and its story is not surprising, it is always riveting. The acting by everyone is superb, especially so in the case of Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup. (In French, Arabic and Corsu, with English subtitles.)

When I arrived at the Angelika theater, Dr. Ruth was just leaving an earlier showing. She told me that she felt the picture was excellent and thought I would enjoy it. She was right. We also arranged to have lunch.

A side note: When I was a city councilman and later a congressman, I was deeply involved in prison reform, and I visited almost every New York City prison. Shortly after being elected to Congress, I visited a prison in Washington, D.C. As I walked through the facility unannounced, I passed a prisoner mopping the floor who said, "Good morning Congressman Koch." I was shocked and asked, "How in the world do you know who I am?" He replied, "I had the pleasure at The Tombs." (A Manhattan prison.) Life was and remains full of surprises.

Henry Stern—also a former city councilman—said: "This is a well-made movie about life in a French prison and wholesale drug dealing. It runs for two and a half hours, which is long enough to get high and come down. I admire the competence of the filmmakers and the actors. The murder was depicted artistically, but the coverage of the rapes and beatings was prosaic, almost squeamish. Some good sides of prison life were shown, a garment factory where inmates worked, and a school where they were taught to read and write French. It is highly unlikely that a prisoner could transact mob business and murder rival gangsters during a twelve-hour day pass, but this is not a documentary. This film is not for those with weak stomachs or bladders, but it is a work of art that connoisseurs of prison and drug movies should enjoy and appreciate."

Presented by

Ed Koch was mayor of NYC from 1978 to 1989. He's credited with restoring fiscal stability to the city and creating affordable housing. He's also a film buff. More

Mayor Koch saved New York City from bankruptcy and restored the pride of New Yorkers during his three terms as mayor from 1978-1989. He restored fiscal stability by placing the city on a GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practices) balanced budget. He created a housing program that provided more than 150,000 units of affordable housing and created New York City's first merit judicial selection system. Prior to being mayor, Mr. Koch served for nine years as a congressman and two years as a member of the New York City Council. He attended City College of New York from 1941 to 1943. He was drafted into the Army his last year of college and served with the 104th Infantry Division. He received two battle stars and was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant in 1946. He received his LL.B. degree from the New York University School of Law in 1948 and began to practice law immediately thereafter. He is currently a partner in the law firm of Bryan Cave LLP and hosts a call-in radio program on Bloomberg AM 1130 (WBBR). Mr. Koch appears weekly on NY1 television and is the author of ten autobiographical books.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

Just In