A Prophet is as self-contained, insular piece of fiction as I have ever experienced. Chronicling the life of central character Malik El Djebena as he learns to survive in the harsh realities of prison life, the story happens within a narrative and moral vacuum. We never learn what Malik’s crime was, whether or not he actually committed it, or anything about his life before. Naturally, he swears innocence, and even if we’re inclined to believe him, whether by wrongfully-accused tropestry or by inclination toward the deepest tragedy, it makes no difference to what happens over the course of the next six years of his life.
By starting off with as blank a slate as possible, the writers are unquestionably challenging the judicial and penal systems that transform a bitter, naive teenage delinquent into a hardened murderer and crimelord. A Prophet, despite its intense, extreme subject matter, is careful and deliberate in its moral noninterference. Yes, Malik struggles with the consequences of the actions he takes, but this is not for the sake of casting judgment upon him, rather to demonstrate the effect his circumstances and choices have had upon his psyche. The film simply presents the story, providing enough justification to allow sympathy for the young prisoner’s initial helplessness.
Instead of condemning Malik’s actions, they are simply explained and presented to the audience, leaving us to question our own social responsibility for the course of his life. We lament the insufferable conditions in which he begins his imprisonment; we admire the tenacity with which he builds his reputation, slowly creeping out from under the oppressive protection of better-established mafiosi, but we shudder when we see the man he has become offer to take on a protective role for his dead friend’s child. At this point, Malik is a far cry from an ideal parent, but we’ve been quietly sympathizing with his anguish and admiring his work ethic. He is unquestionably the product of his environment, and, as a societally-run institution, the environment which has transformed him is the people’s responsibility. These aren’t easy questions, and by no means does A Prophet offer a solution, but it does a remarkable job of separating the quality of a person’s character from the allegedly inherent morality of his actions. Malik may have begun as a blank slate, but somewhere along the line, we gave up the chalk, and we don’t like what they’ve decided to draw.