Wednesday, April 7, 2010



Un prophète (A PROPHET) is a sharp, French prison flick that continually hits the refresh button on the prison film genre. Superior Machiavellian hustles, sex, drugs, and a completely exploitable prison system make this two and a half hour epic worth every minute. There is no glorification of prison society in this film. The reality that is presented is a desolate one where even beneficial prospects are bathed with grim shadows. Somehow, all of this negativity is delivered with a modicum of hope, driving the film through to its optimistic ending.

When 19 year old Malik (a convincingly skittish Tahar Rahim) shows up in a French prison system for a 6 year stint, he is so inexperienced that the countdown to his “welcome to prison” thrashing is ticking overtime. The beating that Malik takes is relatively mild, but the stage is set. Malik has nothing and is no one. He is serving time for “attacking cops,” but this is all we know about him. He has no family, no friends, and he is illiterate. Malik has absolutely no connections and nothing to lose. Not only that, but he is a half-breed “dirty Arab,” and this leaves him with no strong racial ties. This cements his position at the bottom of the food chain. What Malik does possess is a natural intelligence, and his new prison life feeds this intelligence with a series of barbaric, twisted lessons.

One could look at Malik’s prison moves through a video game lens. He has to kill sub-bosses and go on missions before he can win the game. The sub-bosses and missions get more and more hectic as the film continues.

Scenes that lightly smack of such American prison films as AMERICAN ME and ANIMAL FACTORY permeate the landscape as Malik attempts to find his way. Like the main characters in these films, Malik finds himself free-falling into an amoral hole that offers little hope and no spiritual redemption. He has to go through this vortex, and as he does, Malik literally grows up and becomes a man before our eyes.

Brooding, elderly Corsican thug, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), forces Malik to kill a snitch named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), and his return is protection. Malik can’t get out of this obligation; when he tries to, he is choked out with a plastic bag over his head. The scene in which Malik murders Reyeb is so riveting and stressful that it is a relief when the blood finally sprays.

After Malik becomes a murderer, he is saddled with Reyeb’s ghost who resides in his cell, much like the victims congregated in the theater in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Reyeb becomes Malik’s smoking buddy, offering odd pieces of information and assuming the role of a powerless guardian angel. The title of the film can be loosely applied to this and other more subtle scenes of spiritual significance. Malik is protected physically by Cesar and his thugs, but his tormented inner man gets some level of peace from the ghost of Reyeb.

Cesar’s treatment of Malik is that of vicious, fatherly disdain. Malik listens closely to Cesar’s henchmen and eventually learns their Corsican language, thus becoming bilingual and moving deeper into Cesar’s circle. There are perks to being Cesar’s eyes and ears such as a television, DVD player, and a visit from a prostitute, but despite these comforts, Malik’s prison existence is still uncompromisingly bleak.

Malik earns a day pass, given for good behavior in the French prison system, and is forced to hustle for Cesar outside of prison while doing a little multi-tasking hash dealing for himself. The jobs that Cesar has Malik doing on the outside tend to involve precarious situations and terse conversations had while staring down the business end of a gun. However, Malik’s life outside of prison is presented as bright and exhilarating. When Malik takes a short business flight on a plane, his childish wonder and lack of decorum are a treat to watch.

In prison, Malik’s only bright spot is the education that he starts with his friend Ryad (Adel Bencherif). Ryad teaches Malik to read and write. This aspect of their relationship comes to an end soon when Ryad is released. Then Ryad becomes Malik’s hash-slanging lieutenant on the outside, but their relationship is tainted by Ryad’s recurring testicular cancer and the chance that he will die and leave his wife and child behind. Through Ryad, life on the outside is presented with the “two sides of the same coin” view. Prison has its problems, and so does freedom.

The French prison game isn’t all brawn and force (though such methods are employed) it is mostly cerebral, laced with copious amounts of treachery and overt verbal intimidation. When Malik cinches all of his loose ends together and makes his play, it is electrifying to watch. Vengeance is dealt, and while it is subtle, it is crushing. But this isn’t a film that ends on a bummer note. There is hope in its final frames, making the whole mechanism work seamlessly.

A PROPHET presents prison in the hopeless sense of a film like MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. The standard prison gladiator themes from American films like LOCK-UP, UNDISPUTED or even PENITENTIARY are absent in A PROPHET. Battery-filled sock beatings are administered and punches are thrown, but this is definitely not the ripped Hollywood prison machine that we have grown accustomed to. Malik is a skinny, chain-smoking kid who can barely grow a moustache. None of the other prisoners in this French penitentiary are swollen with muscle either. Moreover, outside of a few hefty bellies and a few taller than average men, these are some of the least formidable-looking inmates ever presented in a prison film.

Director Jacques Audiard keeps the pacing almost unfairly brisk. As plot elements unfold, some of it happens so fast that the viewer is only left with fragments of past offscreen moments. Stuff happens before the camera gets there. This method of plot-delivery keeps the viewer off-kilter. Violence seems to be around every corner, and moments where the tension seems to have been lifted explode with the unexpected. Freeze-frame, floating word introductions to new characters remind the viewer that A PROPHET also considers style and isn’t solely concerned with its intricate storyline.

Unlike the typical prison film, A PROPHET’s plot focuses on the strategy of the takeover and isn’t entirely reliant on the brute force behind it. It is thick, balanced, and displays the raw, morality-free survival mechanism that kicks in when men are behind bars. It is a haunting, intelligent, fast-paced character study that tells us in a new palatable way that prison is still both a life and soul-killer.

-Mediasaurus Rex

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