Prison education: a coming-of-age crime epic
A Prophet is about formation. The word in French means training. Prison turns nineteen-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) from a shapeless blob, a young Arab who can barely even read, to a deft manipulator of power who leaves after serving part of a six-year sentence with the world open to him. Circumstances have molded him. But he in turn has learned to mold them. Malik isn’t religions or bearded (the slang prison term for Muslims is “the bearded ones”). He’s light-skinned and light-voiced. He speaks softly and respectfully. But he can be aggressive and violent if crossed. He’s a tabula rasa that’s been written on: he grew up speaking both Moghrebi Arabic and French, probably French more but he isn’t sure; he quit school at eleven. Prison will be his university. And he will graduate summa cum laude.
The French director Jacques Audiard (his best-known films are A Self-Made Hero, Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) chooses to work with genre but, as good directors can do — and he is clearly now one of the best — he alters and transcends it. Yes, he’s the reigning French polar (film noir, crime thriller) director, but he reigns by exploding the conventions he works with. Un prophète is a coming-of-age movie, a prison story, a crime saga with Godfather-like echoes, even, in part, a Western, one in which an Indian takes over from the Cowboys. Audiard isn’t copying American movies, though his great last movie was a remake of one (James Toback’s debut Fingers). This is a director who is aware of film history and Hollywood’s central position therein, but he works with a French sensibility and deals with European realities. Though America may be drowning in anti-Muslim paranoia, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe.
Malik El Djebena, technically a French Arab from a Muslim family, himself transcends categories. When sent to the big central prison near Paris, Malik, whose identity is already minimal (especially to him), is stripped and humbled, his little hidden wad of money taken. He’s forced to spread his cheeks, cough, stick out his tongue. Given a job, he learns to sew jeans. He floats, not hanging in the yard with anyone. Cesar Luciani (the fabulous Niels Arestrup, also memorable in The Beat My Heart Skipped), capo of the group of Corsican mafiosi who control the prison population and many of the guards, spots Malik and gives him a choice. He wants Malik to kill another Arab prisoner, a snitch about to testify at a trial. If Malik does it, he’ll get the Corsican’s protection. His choice is do it or die himself.
It may have helped Tahar Rahim, a greenhorn actor whose performance here won him two Césars for Best and Most Promising Actor, that he was almost as terrified of undertaking this demanding role of Malik, as Malik the character is of immediately being pushed into the role of an assassin who, after being let into his cell for sex, must slit the throat of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) with a razor blade hidden in his cheek. This trick works because Malik is young and angel-faced. The sequence both convinces us of Malik’s potential and earns the film’s credentials as an actioner — one that’s methodical, intimate and harrowing. It’s Malik’s initiation and ours as viewers. Reyeb spouts blood, throbs on the floor, and dies. You are there. And Malik will be in almost every shot in this film. Reyeb is dead but doesn’t ever go away. He keeps reappearing as a mystical sufi ghost in Malik’s cells, even in his bed.
Malik was not raised by his own parents. On the outside, he has no one. Now he gets a new parent, a chef, a boss, Luciani. He becomes the Corsicans’ Arab, making coffee, running errands. He goes to classes and learns to read. Later, he studies economics. Unbeknownst to the Corsicans, he picks up and studies their dialect of Italian. The chef is angry and mistrustful: “You spy on us!” but then he makes Malik his spy on his associates.
After a year or so a board grants Malik occasional brief furloughs for good behavior. It’s never for a full day, but each time it’s engineered by Luciani with Malik obliged to do a job for him. But as Malik grows more adept at the violent chess game of crime, drugs, prison, murder, he’s ready to play a double game. So on these furloughs he’s not just running errands for his Corsican. He has linked up with Jordi (Reda Kateb), another French Arab he’s met in the yard, a tall man they call “Le Gitane” (The Gypsy), who deals hash. Malik starts administering the hash shipments.
Nicolas Sarkozy orders the bulk of the Corsicans relocated from the central prison to one closer to their homeland, altering the power balance in the prison for Luciani, giving him less contact. No love is ever lost between Luciani and Malik El Djebena, but the relationship becomes ever more important to both. Malik having been trained by a master, it’s just a matter of time before he breaks loose and assumes power on his own. He is thrown into one more challenging test after another, but he seems to lead a charmed life and even convinces some men on the outside that he’s psychic: hence the title “a prophet.”
In this brief but epic narrative Audiard makes masterful use of cinema’s ability to convey rapid information thorough image alone. A gesture at airport security, a slo-mo of jumbled bodies in an SUV, a new cell that shows Malik’s more preferred status, the practicing Muslims he does not associate with, but who fall in line at a meeting with him; a struck deer flying into the air; jogging around a large cell that symbolizes impending freedom — these show the craftsmanship that make A Prophet remarkable, a film whose team worked as deftly in the broad strokes as in the fine details. A Prophet is one of those films you remember in black and white. it’s all about action and milieu, and despite being two and a half hours long it is tight and economical. You walk out of it a little bit dazed.
A Prophet is about identity and ethnicity. It’s about playing by the rules and rising above them. It is, of course, less “pleasurably offbeat” than Audiard’s earlier films (as Variety’s Justin Chang puts it), but it compensates by its skillful handling of a larger canvas. There is a certain conventionality in the long second half of the film with its growing conflicts and outside exploits, but they’re all handled with freshness.
Credit is due to Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, who penned the original screenplay, and Thomas Bidegain, who worked with Audiard on the final rewrites. There are a host of other good actors involved: Rahim’s and Arestrup’s work wouldn’t look so good without them. Stéphane Fontaine is responsible for the intimate, rapid cinematography, which blends blood and poetry without ever calling undue attention to itself. Juliette Welfling ‘s editing is essential. Alexandre Desplat’s music is surging and powerful at times, but it always works.
Though Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon won the Golden Palm at Cannes and A Prophet/Un prophète the second prize, some feel Audiard’s film was really the best of the festival. Anyway, it was given pride of place at the French Césars, where it won nine awards including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film and Best Director. Not surprisingly, it’s received universal acclaim both with French and, six months later, with US critics — for obvious reasons. Though this may seem more conventional in genre than his previous films, it’s more complex and demanding and confirms that with every successive film Audiard just gets better. He’s the most exciting French director of his generation.
DIRECTOR: JACQUES AUDIARD
WRITER: THOMAS BIDEGAIN AND JACQUES AUDIARD (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY), ABDEL RAOUF DAFRI AND NICOLAS PEUFAILLIT (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
CAST: TAHAR RAHIM, NIELS ARESTRUP, ADEL BENSHERIF, HICHEM YACOUBI
RUNTIME: 155 MIN