A Prophet (Un Prophète)

Director: Jacques Audiard
France, 2009, 155mins, rated 18
Screening: The Phoenix, 22 January 2010

Where Jacques Audiard’s previous two films, 2001’s Read My Lips and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, both flirted with Noir-ish elements of the French criminal underworld, his latest film, A Prophet, immerses us fully in the dark hinterland of France’s criminal underclass. Inspired by conditions he'd witnessed when screening one of his films in a French prison, Audiard brings us an epic, sprawling and intense thriller that works as both a coming-of-age journey and a stark exposé of the French penal system – with all its institutional racism and corrupt gangster operations.

The film follows the plight of 19 year old delinquent Malik El Djebena as he enters a hardboiled French prison on a six year sentence. Young, alone, orphaned and uneducated, Malik starts his new life behind bars as the ultimate outsider. As a relative innocent and a fair-skinned Arab, Malik is caught between the viscously corrupt Corsicans who control the prison and the burgeoning number of Muslim inmates whom they despise. He is quickly dragged into the dangerous, kill-or-be-killed existence of gang-controlled prison life and has to learn to adapt quickly, or be crushed beneath its weight.

Surprisingly, for a film that’s the best part of three hours long, A Prophet is well paced and has a flowing dramatic curve. The narrative steers clear of a formulaic structure and plays it more fly-on-the-wall, following Malik’s plight from the moment he enters prison to his eventual walk to freedom, taking in along the way his forays outside of the prison walls on day release. From his first inescapable ‘assignment’ for the Corsicans to his final, explosive mission on the streets of Paris, we’re shown life through Malik’s eyes, empathising with his innocence and predicament at first, then exploring the ropes of corrupt prison existence through him as he adjusts to, and finally prevails in, his new environment.

Stylistically, A Prophet uses the naturalistic elements of Cinéma Vérité to create a sense of realism. Handheld cameras put us right in among the inmates, while the cold lighting, ever-present background noise and grim, institutional mise-en-scene convey the sights and sounds of life behind bars and the feeling of being walled-in. Among the linear narrative and naturalistic style however, Audiard does introduce some contrasting techniques, such as the magical realist touch of Malik’s imaginary cellmate – the ‘ghost’ of his first victim. Whether seen as an escapist trope, a manifestation of Malik’s guilt or an imagined confidant to address in times of introspection, it’s a clever device that works to periodically slow the fast moving plot and allows us to reflect on Malik’s situation, actions and state of mind.

Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena

Audiard also continues his use of distorted vision and hearing – devices he’d previously employed in both Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Malik suffers attacks of tunnel vision, initially as he’s being transported to prison – we see through his eyes as the panic and claustrophobia engulf him – and later as the pressures of his situation are just too great to bear, reminding us of his tender years and treacherous situation. There’s also a telling sequence later in the film when Malik is temporarily deafened in a ferocious close-quarters gunfight. Stunned that he’s somehow managed to survive yet another crazy gamble, we see the maelstrom of emotions on his face and share, through first person perspective, his muted hearing – the blood pounding in his head as he realises, triumphantly, that he's just changed his fate forever.

Despite its harshness and intensity, A Prophet is an engrossing, intelligent and dynamic film that signals a definite watershed for this hitherto promising French director. While more in line with the harsh realities of Alan Clark’s 1979 borstal drama Scum than the sepia-tinged salvation of The Shawshank Redemption, A Prophet does provide a redemptive conclusion of sorts. Malik may not walk away from his sentence a reformed and rehabilitated member of society (how could he after what we've just seen him endure?), but he does leave having learnt the art of resourcefulness, taking away a great deal from his time inside. These might not be the lessons France's judicial system had in mind, but by applying himself to his situation, Malik leaves prison a changed and matured man, a powerful and well-connected criminal with an illustrious career ahead of him and new found self-worth. Not bad for 6 years work.

by William Thomas

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