Un prophète (2009)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
Synopsis: A young Arab man is sent to a French prison where he becomes a mafia kingpin.
There’s something fascinating about modern prison movies, the way in which prisoners are seen to establish this covert society independent of the authorities assigned to watch over them (many of whom are fatally compromised, and therefore irrelevant). Order needs to be maintained, not so that members of its society can live in harmony but so that the ruling elite can practice their illicit activities undisturbed. Those who threaten the equilibrium are harshly dealt with, and those who lose their grip on power are swiftly overthrown. Most comparative innocents thrown into this terrifying melting pot are nothing more than vulnerable fodder for those higher up the chain and yet, after having his sneakers stolen by another prisoner on his first visit to the exercise yard, young Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) somehow manages to negotiate the treacherous landscape of prison life and, over a number of years, ascend to a position of power both in and out of jail in Jacques Audiard’s highly acclaimed Une prophete.
Malik’s trick is to blend in, to observe and learn; he’s part Arab and part Corsican and so, of course, is rejected by both races, but he ultimately uses this to his advantage because, despite their overt hostility, he knows there are chinks that other men would be incapable of exploiting but to which his mixed heritage gives him access. Malik’s ascendancy begins when he is chosen by Corsican prison crime lord Cesar (Niels Arestrup) to kill an Arab prisoner (Hichem Yacoubi). Malik is scared, inexperienced, but when futile attempts to escape his task meet with no success, we find that he possesses the resolve and survival instinct to go through with the murder. The killing earns him the protection of Cesar, but not the respect of his acolytes, who refer to Malik as a “dirty Arab.”
Malik learns to read and write, and to speak Corsican. He realises he is smarter than those closest to Cesar, and wins a covert position of trust thanks to the fact that none of Cesar’s men knows Malik understands what they’re talking about. Then day release from prison after passing the half-way point of his sentence offers Malik the opportunity to branch out on his own with the help of Ryad (Adel Bencherif), a former prisoner…
A Prophet is a labyrinthine saga which contains no tangible message, other than the unavoidable one about inmates emerging from prison as more hardened criminals than when they went in, and paints prison intrigue as the modern-day equivalent of court intrigue of old. It’s a world of secrets and alliances. Rahim does a remarkable job of subtly registering the changes Malik undergoes during his time inside, and the screenplay wisely avoids making his transformation too obvious. Like those around him, we often don’t know what Malik is thinking or planning until he acts, and once his rise is complete we’re left looking quizzically back, trying to figure out just how he achieved all that he has.
(Reviewed 30th October 2014)