For years I wondered what else Niels Arestrup – the young and handsome and romantic character I once watched in a French television series – had done. I’ve finally come across him again, in a French jail, as the not terribly nice Luciani. I forget what his Danish-ness consists of, other than his name, but he seems to have been busy acting, albeit not in the English-speaking world.
There’s something to be said for going to see films you know nothing about, and French films fall largely in this category. I didn’t even realise that A Prophet was a French film until I looked it up on IMDb. That made the prospect of two and a half hours of watching prisoners in jail more appealing, somehow.
It’s all about a young Arab, Malik, who is sentenced to six years in prison, and who early on is forced by one of the powerful prisoners, Luciani, to kill someone else in order to gain Luciani’s protection. He really has no choice, so kills his fellow inmate in the most bloody manner.
At least, I think it was bloody. I stopped watching for a while there, and only fixed my eyes on the screen once the razor blade seemed to have gone, along with its effects. It’s not often in films that you get to see characters trying to wash their bloody clothes quite so desperately.
The deed secures Malik’s status within Luciani’s group, where he is ‘safe’ but only ever considered a lowly Arab among the Corsicans. Malik decides to improve himself, so goes to school, but later on gets himself involved in more crime ranging from a bit of drug pushing to more violence and lots of blood. But there is method behind what he does, and Malik matures, even if he is anything but innocent.
All the actors do a great job, and the film provides fascinating insight into both French prisons and French society of a kind we rarely see. The sticks of bread they are fed in prison, and the single cells, and the polite form of address towards staff is refreshingly different.
Did I mention that Niels Arestrup has grown old since our last ‘encounter’? And now that I think of it, he was a bit of a crook then, too. Only handsomer.