Un prophète (Director: Jacques Audiard): Essentially a coming-of-age story set in a violent and corrupt prison, Un prophète sprawls over 150 minutes and yet doesn’t really let you get to know protagonist Malik all that deeply. When we first meet him, he’s an illiterate and anti-social teenager, entering prison to begin a six-year sentence. Although of North African descent, he’s not a religious Muslim, and so doesn’t fall in with the prison’s Muslim gang. Instead, he’s taken under the wing of the Corsicans, under the leadership of Cesar Luciani, after being forced into committing the gruesome murder of an informant.
As time goes by, he learns to read and write, and is given more responsibility within the Corsican gang. He also secretly begins studying the Corsican language in order to know what’s being said behind his back. After a number of the Corsicans are transferred to prisons closer to home, Malik finds himself becoming Cesar’s trusted lieutenant. Even so, Cesar and the other Corsicans berate him as a “dirty Arab” and the Muslims consider him a Corsican. Gradually he is able to form relationships with the Muslims, too, and he makes a good friend in Ryed, who is soon released.
Once Ryed is on the outside, the two team up to establish a drug smuggling operation to get drugs into the prison. He does this without informing Cesar, for whom he continues to do errands. When Malik’s nearing parole, he is able to obtain “leave” days and so begins running more dangerous errands for Cesar as well as meeting with Ryed. Without giving away any more plot, I can tell you that by the end of the film, the student has surpassed his master, and young Tahar Rahim does a great job of showing Malik’s transformation over a period of several years. He is able to convey a childlike sense of wonder when Malik experiences things for the first time, like flying in a plane or walking on a beach. And the film is slickly directed, portraying the violence and paranoia of prison life in gritty detail. There are even some arty flourishes: the man Malik kills at the beginning of the film returns to haunt him in his cell, another scene which gives the film its title, and the numerous titles that appear on screen, announcing a character’s name or a chapter theme.
But as I said at the beginning, I still felt the film lacked a beating heart. Malik’s transformation is from petty criminal to crime boss, a matter of learning skills and building relationships. Any inner change is barely hinted at, and we don’t know anything about how he feels about the morality of what he does. The film is pretty fatalistic, and Malik’s ascent doesn’t disguise his lack of choices. I would have liked to see his character struggle a bit more with his conscience, though.