Un Prophete Review

Audiard is renowned for his slow working practices, taking a long time to prepare for each new film. In this case there have been five years between The Heart My Beat Skipped and Un Prophete. In this time Audiard has researched the French prison system and meticulously planned this somewhat epic crime film.

Un Prophete begins with the lead character Malik, exceptionally brought to life by relative newcomer Tahar Rahim, entering prison. He has six difficult years of incarceration ahead of him. We do not find out what crime he committed in order to receive this sentence but it is unlikely to have been a very serious crime, based on Malik’s naivety at the start of the film and his clear fear of violent confrontations.

Malik enters the prison with nothing. He attempts to smuggle in 50 Euros but this is quickly taken by the guards. Even the trainers he is given are stolen the second he walks into the prison yard. Malik lacks more than just physical possessions though, as it becomes clear he also has nothing outside the prison walls. He seems to have no family, no friends; if he is to survive he needs to use any personal skills he has at his disposal.

He is quickly marked out as an easy target and a group of Corsican gangsters decide to use him to kill a prisoner they need dead. They bully him into killing the prisoner through threats of violence and make it clear that even the guards will not help him as they are under the control of the Corsicans. Malik goes through with the murder, despite his obvious despair at having to do so. The murder is graphically shown and stands out as a very disturbing scene within the film, with an emphasis on the real physical effects of a violent murder. The audience is placed right in the cell with Malik, confronted with the reality of this gruesome murder.

Once Malik has committed this act he is taken under the wing of the Corsican boss, Cesar (Niels Arestrup), who realises more and more how useful Malik can be. Malik is not treated the same as the other members of the gang though and as a French Arab, the Corsicans see him as a lower class citizen and within a social system that is itself low-class this puts Malik at the bottom of the bottom. He is resigned to duties such as sweeping, fetching food and newspapers and making coffee. It is only when Cesar is left more isolated as many of the Corsicans are let out and the guards begin to turn their back on him does he become to increasingly rely on Malik. Malik clearly has his own agenda though and when sent out of the prison on day leave he uses this as an opportunity to make connections and make money for himself.

The scenes outside are a break from the claustrophobic interiors of the drab prison. The cinematography between the two differs, highlighting this contrast, with dreary greys and steely blues dominating the prison scenes and warmer tones for the scenes set outside. The cinematography is well crafted throughout and the suitably unremarkable editing for the most part adds to the the rather depressing tone. The scenes of violence in particular are also well executed, highlighting the horror and ramping up the adrenalin but never succumbing to Hollywood action clichés. The positioning of the audience within Malik’s world alone is further exemplified in one sequence where his hearing is impaired and the sound mix reflects this. In this scene it is implied that Malik has been shot and lies, as if dead, for a few moments before coming ‘back to life’. This sequence coupled with other symbolic elements, including 40 days and nights in solitary and a glimpse he has into the future, explain the title but actually add little to the piece overall. More interesting is the politics on display and the position of Malik as a socio-political prophet rather than a biblical one.

The prison is racially divided in Un Prophete and it is the Corsicans who hold the majority of the power, despite being in the minority. The Arabs in Un Prophete are poorly treated but have a growing population. This is something that is apparently mirrored in real prisons in France and also France as a whole. The prison is a microcosm and it therefore represents not just an interesting commentary on the French prison system but also the wider French social climate. Malik is the minority in the group of Corsican and he realises he can grab the power and revolt against them. This too is true of the French Arab population of the prison. They realise that they have the numbers and with the influence of Malik they rise up and seize control. In many ways Malik prophecies this, he sees how the future could look and he manipulates the situation to this end. This subtext is one of the aspects of Un Prophete that makes it so engrossing. In a similar way to the way in which Edward Bunker’s excellent Animal Factory book, and to a lesser degree the film,is a tribal study so to is Un Prophete; it is a work of anthropology and a thoroughly compelling one.

Un Prophete is also a wonderful character piece, one aided by an excellent central performance and a naturalistic and nuanced script. The dialogue never feels forced and all the characters are instantly believable. My only complaint is that the film often slips into stylised flourishes that feel entirely unnecessary. The inmate that Malik kills early on comes back to ‘haunt’ him throughout the film, appearing physically alongside Malik and actually helping him. There are also captions and names that appear on-screen but these offer little information that is not in the film already and actually instantly pulled me out of the film. This is made more infuriating as they are not used frequently enough to become accustomed to, as they are in many of Kinji Fukasaku’s films, which results in a feeling of slipping back into the film only to be pulled out again by a conspicuous device. One could also argue that the level of realism is also undermined by the almost romanticized rise of Malik and the comparisons that one could make to films such as Scarface. Malik even has a scar across his face that is never explained. This is a minor complaint though as the film is mostly lacking in too much excess and the ending of Un Prophete is also a somewhat ambiguous one, tonally perfect for the story that has just unfolded.

Un Prophete is a deeply affecting film, a solid crime film and an anthropological study of the French prison system. Within the story Audiard also manages to widen the scope of the film to larger issues of social mobility, race, education and class in France as a whole. In doing so he never loses sight of the personal story at its core and succeeds in transcending the genre the film inhabits. The film does have a few weaknesses but Un Prophete is an excellent film and an interesting socio-political discourse.

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