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

By Ed Koch
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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.

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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."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/a-prophet-a-french-prison-movie-with-universal-appeal/36827/