Nineteen year old Franco-Arab Malik El Djebena is beginning a prison sentence of six years in Brecourt, France. He had been in and out of detention centers as a child but this is his first time in an adult prison. Behind the walls, the inmates are divided into Corsicans and Muslims and Malik has no friends or enemies there. He just wants to finish his sentence in peace and quiet even though he has no idea of what he will do once released. The head of the Corsicans, Cesar Luciani brings Malik into the Corsican fold and Malik has no idea what to do except to cooperate. Most of the Corsicans see him as a dirty Arab and the Muslims regard him as a traitor.
The key to film is one of the most brutal murders seen on film and it leaves the murderer shaking. We learn that Malik was not evil from birth but s shy and passive loser all of his life. He became what he became because of a life in prison. He is insecure and we are never sure why he is in prison and even though he claims that he is innocent, it really does not matter to the plot. When Malik is told to kill another prisoner, he messes it up but he becomes what is known as a survivor who will do whatever necessary to stay alive. Slowly Malik is transformed in prison due to Luciani’s tutelage and this is his coming-of-age story which is sad, bleak and with no remorse.
We never know what goes on in Malik’s head and we only know him by what he does. Played by Tahar Rahim, he is an enigma to us. He has been molded by Luciani ( Niels Arestrup) and he reveals nothing. This makes him a fascinating character.
The film is reminiscent of “The Godfather” but behind bars. Here a young Arab (similar to Michael Corleone) rises from innocence to corruption and the film is absolutely riveting as it looks at the inmate hierarchy and the gangland sage of the loss of innocence. Nominated for the Academy Award this year, this is a study of a guy you will not likely forget soon.