Mar 3 2010

Un Prophete

Un Prophete, France/s entry to the Academy’s Best Foreign Film category, has been compared to The Godfather, a comparison that many will think presumptuous, undeserved or euro-centric.  Though the film’s protagonist is no Michael Corleone, the rise of the film’s titular character is just as majestic and engaging as his Seventies, American counterpart.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a nineteen-year-old Beur (formal term for an Arab immigrant in France) living on the streets of France when he is arrested and given a six-year sentence.  He has no family, no friends in or outside of prison and is illiterate.  Needless to say, he has all the odds stacked against him.

Soon, Malik is approached by the reigning Corsican gang within the prison (the Corsicans are to France as the Sicilians are to Italy) to kill Reyeb, another Arab inmate with vital information concerning some of their outside criminal activities.  Though reluctant to do so, Malik follows through with the task, and in return receives protection and low-level status, while still being treated like a dog by Cosriscan crime boss Cesar Luciani ( a wonderfully vicious Niels Arestrup).  From there, Malik learns to read, makes his own connections inside and outside of prison, and within his sentence, slowly becomes a reigning boss in his own makeshift crime family.

The film itself is a whopping two and a half hours, but director Jacques Audiard keeps Malik’s rise through the ranks of prison and the criminal world are engaging and unpredictable.  The atmosphere of prison is bleak enough to clash with the film’s main theme of rising to power, and the expected horrors of prison life still carry enough of an impact to shock us.

What sets this film apart from other crime films is how Audiard uses violence.  We expect people to get beaten in showers or stabbed in the mess halls, but Audiard keeps the violence to a minimum.  That kind of absence of the unexpected puts us in Malik’s place in that any horrible thing can happen at a moment’s notice.  When the violence happens though, it isn’t flashy or stylish, but savage and real; it resonates a kind of terror films of this nature seldom achieve.

Of course, credit must go to Tahar Rahim, who never fails to keep Malik a sympathetic character.  Whereas we watched Michael Corleone become a cold-hearted monster in The Godfather, Malik manages to maintain a kind of   innocence and vulnerability, regardless of his actions.  Although motivated by the classics (greed, success, and, later, respect), Malik’s acts of violence are more like acts of survival than Machiavellian tactics, and his attitude towards violence is never glorified satisfaction, and always have lasting effects on his conscience.

Malik’s rise from illiterate newbie to legit crime boss may sound like a stretch, but Audiard shows this path, not as a quick scheme of big moments, but as a slow succession of opportunity and choice.  Malik’s accumulation of power is impressive, but not so much that it’s unbelievable; one friend turns into a sizeable crew, one business deal turns into a profitable relationship and so forth.  Furthermore, Malik’s own personal growth is parallel to his professional one, as he learns to read, teaches himself the Corsican language (which is different from traditional French), and proves to be quick on his feet when it comes to handling a situation that doesn’t go according to plan.

One thing that may make this film difficult for American audiences to understand is the different European crime organizations.  For Europeans, the various Arab and Corsican mafias are as familiar to them as the Irish and Italian mafias are to us.  Because the film isn’t an American guide to Euro thugs, we are thrown into the intricate web of French organized crime while figuring out who’s who.  Although this makes particular plot points a bit difficult to follow, it doesn’t drown out the story.

A Prophet is described as someone who has contact with the outside world, often God or angels of sorts, and communicates the messages of said celestial beings to mere mortals.  This person is often celebrated, respected and revered as a result.  Although Malik is haunted by a ghostly Reyeb and has a single prophetic dream that grants him a mystical reputation with a particular gangster, the film’s title is not rooted in the supernatural.  Much of Malik’s power comes with the connections he forms with others while on leave (a conditional “parole for a day” arrangement within the prison system).  While charged to run errands and perform tasks for the Corsicans, Malik forms his own business deals and partners.  Like a prophet, Malik’s communication with the outside world brings him respect and power inside the sobering, penitent “real” world of prison.

Un Prophete is a wonderfully engaging gangster movie done with a light touch.  The film balances it’s violent subject matter with seamless storytelling, and as a result, the drugs, beatings, criminal politics and murder never once take away from the center of the story, which is simply one man’s transformation as a nobody into a very notable somebody.

Overall, 5 out of 5. Fantastique

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