Reviews - Un Prophète
Reviewed By John Stakes
In more recent times we have seen Luc Besson’s “Nikita” and now the rise of another master of the old school French thriller, Jacques Audiard. Following his “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” now comes “A Prophet”, a film laden with accolades including 2010 Oscar nominated for Best Film in a Foreign Language, Grand Prix winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and no less than nine Cesars. Does it live up to all the hype and expectation? Yes. It is both thrilling and disturbing though perhaps not as politically significant as some observers would have us believe.
Most of the action takes place inside a concrete and steel hell hole of a prison, the perfect setting for capturing our attention and setting up a series of claustrophobic and disturbing scenes. Enter Malik, a nineteen years old French-Arab prisoner proclaiming his innocence but here to serve a six years’ sentence for something or other under a plea-bargaining arrangement, who needs all his accumulated guile and individualism to survive the machinations of the other inmates. These comprise mainly Muslim Arabs and a bunch of hardened Corsicans led by the vicious Cesar. Malik’s initiation into the Corsican clan requires him to execute a fellow prisoner in an almost unbearable scene involving a razor blade.
This is a world where friendships are never forged but partnerships are created and exploited as a means first of survival and later for economic gain and power. Malik is haunted by the spectre of the man he is forced to kill, but on the plus side he finds himself able to foretell that a deer will hit the car he is travelling in, which both improves his peer standing and provides the film’s somewhat pretentious title (apparently we can turn to the writings of Andre Maurois for an explanation of the significance of deer in the French psyche).
Malik faces a dilemma: his dual ethnicity finds him exposed to and mistrusted by both sides but his survival skills and willingness to learn (read and write and speak Corsican) enable him to open up and eventually exploit their weaknesses and distrust of each other to his own advantage. After three years he earns the right to be allowed out on day leave and is sent out by both sides to undertake various dubious tasks (not all of which were immediately clear to this reviewer) which eventually gives him the opportunity to strip Cesar of his power already weakened by the repatriation of some of Cesar’s bruisers to Corsica to serve the remainder of their terms. Why Malik was allowed out without even cursory monitoring did not ring true and probably owed more to plot development than to any reflection on the failings of prison administration.
Audiard infused his film with all manner of stylistic flourishes ranging from gritty realism to poetic self reflection and hallucination, all delivered with great verve and authority and some crisp editing. The grittier scenes were graphic but not sensationalist. Tension was maintained throughout the high quality of which was measured by the immediate relief felt whenever Malik allowed himself the luxury of humour and the very occasional smile. His journey of personal discovery and the acquisition of power were convincingly conveyed. Some of the directorial flourishes worked better than others but the scene where Malik is deafened by gunshot was particularly effective. The acting of all concerned was faultless and the two leads Taher Rahim (Malik) and Niels Arestrup (Cesar) were outstanding.
The film obviously stands comparison with “The Godfather” and other great Mafia focused films. Perhaps its confinement in the main to a prison cell setting deprived it of the sweeping grandeur associated with the genre, but there was no doubting Malik’s emergence Michael Corleone style. As this was a work of fiction, there was more than a whiff of sequel in the air as Malik walked free to expand his fledgling empire and was there any significance to the cortege of cars which seemed to be following behind?. A great denouement to the season watched by another large audience….and the bonus of “Departures” this coming week-end to round off the season.
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