Jail-Time Maturity


Arab Inmate Blossoms Behind Bars in’A Prophet’

In New York, The Washington Diplomat had the pleasure of a friendly, but serious, conversation with French writer-director Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “Read My Lips”) and French (of Algerian descent) actor Tahar Rahim about “A Prophet.” Their unique film received a slew of honors such as the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes; Best Film wins at the French Academy Awards, London Film Festival and London Critics Circle; and Best Foreign Language Film from the National Board of Review (plus nominations from the Oscars, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, among others).

“I’m just a boy from the countryside. These awards ceremonies exist in another world, like myths. They’re not something I ever thought about, so it’s not a dream come true. It is the impossible made real,” said newcomer Rahim. “There’s really nothing to do there. Some kids go walking in the mountains, but I just went to the cinema. So when I told my parents I wanted to be an actor, even though this wasn’t normal for Arab kids or anyone in the town, they were sort of expecting it and were very supportive.”

Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, an Arab inmate who makes the amazing transformation from a simpleton into a criminal mastermind in the Corsican mob during a stint in prison. “We were interested in telling the story of a homeless guy — he doesn’t even have words to tell his own story — and at the end, he has a home. He has a family. It’s a complicated family, but all families are complicated,” director Audiard explained.

“At the beginning, Malik has nothing. He’s a wild child,” Audiard continued. “He makes his way through the gangsters and his purpose changes throughout the film. Little by little, he develops a conscience.”

Rahim added: “I think he’s really unique because he has the capacity to adapt in a very hostile environment. He doesn’t try to run or try to kill himself. He discovers his own intelligence and adapts himself to his environment. He’s an opportunist — a nice opportunist.”

Elaborating on why his character was so ignorant initially, Rahim said it was “because he grew up on the street. He’s 19 when he arrives in jail. Before that, he was a kid. When you’re in the street and you’re a kid, you don’t think about stuff. You just worry about defending yourself, drinking and finding a place to sleep. He never had a chance to find out that he was smart. You could ask yourself, ‘What would happen to Malik if he hadn’t gone to jail?’ He would have probably died in a squat somewhere. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn in the school of crime.”

Audiard noted that there are elements of realism in Malik’s transformation. “There’s one guy who worked in a big prison outside of Paris who worked with us, and he read the script and said that people like Malik are called the ‘over-adapted kind.’ They are people who really spring up when they’re in jail. Outside reality is too confusing and discouraging. Inside prison, everything is much more simple, and their intelligence can double up in an environment like jail.”

To that end, the director wanted to steer clear of traditional Arab depictions on screen. “In a lot of films, the Arabic people are presented as criminals or presented as very positive characters who try to work hard, integrate and fight racism. We didn’t want to fall into either of these traps. We really wanted to make a film that’s not at all about integration.”

In fact, “A Prophet” is not a typical rise-and-fall gangster film because it’s actually rise-and-rise. “We come from a background of the gangster movies of the ’30s and ’40s,” Audiard said. “But this is a much longer story than other gangster films. Usually those take place over weeks or months. This takes place over seven years and eight rolls of film. Because it’s not a rise and fall, we decided that we couldn’t tell the story over acts…. A lot of people ask us about a sequel because this is just a presentation of the character.”

The director speculated on a potential sequel: “He gets into politics! It’s possible!” Clarifying, he explains, “When I say politics, there’s no irony in it. He could really use the skills he learned in prison to serve the public good. He knows a lot about organization, the human soul, and he’s made in such a matter that he could really be interested in the public good. What would be terrible is if his past gets back to him.”

Rahim ruminated about the fate of his character in a possible sequel. “What I tell myself is he’s going to run away from everything he built, but they’ll get him. And then he’ll have to go back to what he knows best, which is his criminal life.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.