Un prophète

Un prophète

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.


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