Peace Be Upon Him...
In Jacques Audiard's, Un Prophète an Arab teenager is born again into a French prison as an infant of sorts. He is unformed, unshaped, and completely vulnerable, yet despite this, he is gifted with a boundless capacity to observe, imitate, and navigate the almost infinitely hostile world that surrounds him. Throughout the course of the movie he will be adopted, baptized, learn to speak, read, survive, prosper, and eventually transcend the circumstances of his "birth." Similar to the story of another titular prophet, he enters a cave of sorts both illiterate and orphaned and emerges from a world of darkness and ignorance into one of power and revelation, where the costs of both are paid in blood.
When Malik (Tahar Rahim), the main character in Audiard's film, is introduced, we know nothing of him, save the few basic details that will define his existence inside the beast: he is an Arab, he is illiterate, has no family to speak of, and has been convicted of assaulting a police officer and sentenced to six years inside. Yet, all of these trappings and signifiers of identity mean little or nothing to Malik. We get not the slightest hint of who he is, or more likely was, outside of incarceration. He has little interest in, or even knowledge of religion--while being processed he is confused when asked about his dietary requirements, and later claims to not know which language he spoke first, Arabic or French--he is an empty mold, which will be filled with the signs, faith and knowledge of a criminal education.
This education starts early on when the Corsican gang leader, Cèsar (Niels Arestrup), who runs the prison recruits Malik to kill a snitch hiding out in the segregated Muslim unit of the prison, by telling him if he does this favor for him he will be under the gang's protection, and if he doesn't they'll kill him. A grim predestination begins to takes effect, as the actions set before Malik take shape and solidify with a terrifying life of their own. His baptism begins in earnest as he rehearses how to properly tickle someone's balls before spitting out a razor blade and slashing their throat under the guise of the ole' drugs for blowjob setup. Simply put, the tension created by everything leading up to this murder is one of the best and most harrowing sequences put to film in recent memory. What is most impressive is that before his carotid artery is opened, the unfortunate Reyeb, imparts key lessons that will define Malik's character for the rest of the movie. Namely: not everyone is your friend, so the only rational course of action is to be in control of every situation, every transaction. And perhaps most importantly he tells Malik that the idea is to leave prison smarter than when you came in. The murder he commits is a form of revelation, and from that point on, he leaves every situation he enters smarter than before.
Proving that few things are more intimate than murder, Reyeb sticks around as a kind of ghostly soul/roommate, appearing before Malik while on fire, or simply smoking out of the open fold in his neck to advise him or merely shoot the shit. Is Reyeb a vision telling him what to do? Or is he simply a part of his own mind telling him what he wants to become? It is a question that adds resonance to a vision that comes into play later while Malik is advancing his criminal degree while on furlough from prison in Marseilles. This series of leave days--granted for good behavior-- gives Malik opportunity to put his lessons to good use in the outside world, and develop into a formidable figure running hash and making connections that extend beyond the reach and charity of his Corsican benefactors. It also affords a chance to get on a plane and see the ocean for the first time, and in a particularly nice touch, as he goes through airport security, he spreads his arms to be scanned by a metal detector and then out of an institutionalized force of habit opens his mouth wide and sticks his tongue out.
It is Malik's vaguely defined sense of identity and enigmatic character that allows him to rise to the top of the micro-world of prison, and perhaps even more in the one outside. He is an Arab errand boy to the Corsicans, and a sell-out stooge to his Muslim "brothers." This seeming lack of a defined role or place is what allows him to deftly navigate the path that is set out for him early on. The pressure-sealed universe of a prison, rigidly and violently defined by its tribes and allegiances, is only a more condensed and claustrophobic version of the society that builds it. On the outside, people of a minority just have more territory than a kitchen, laundry or cell block to cloister themselves in. France has whole housing projects for that. Rejecting social classification is hard enough on the outside, and impossible in prison. Yet, our main character manages somehow, a miracle in its own right. The film is certainly a comment on the state of immigrants, and Arabs in particular in a nation and culture that seemingly wants nothing to do with them. The film seems to say that in a nation and world where lines of state, language, religion, and nationality continue to disintegrate, the individual least tethered to anyone of these is the one most capable. The only real prophecies are self-fulfilling ones, and for someone like Malik, prison is the strange, brutal, and perhaps only means of making real a vision he already had of himself.