Un Prophète

Un Prophète

Film review by: Witney Seibold

Jacques Audiard’s “Un Prophète” chronicles the power swap of an aging imprisoned gangster and his unlikely teenage protégé. Most of the film takes place within prison walls, and was filmed in an actual French penitentiary. Like any prison film, it takes place over many years, as there’s nothing to do in prison but join gangs, swap sexual favors, do violence, and wait and wait and wait. Some critics have compared this film to “The Godfather,” but while it doesn’t possess Coppola’s epic Shakespearean sweep, it does have a criminal immediacy and attention to underworld details only seen in the best of crime dramas. This is an excellent film.

Malik (Tahar Rahim) is an 18-year-old Arab who has been given a six-year sentence for a series of petty crimes. He is illiterate, impulsive, inexperienced, and, in a strange way, serves as the angelic, innocent naïf within the walls of this building peopled by violent career criminals. Ruling over this prison is an incarcerated sixtyish kingpin type named Cesar Luciani (a very good Niels Arestrup), who forcebly enlists Malik into murdering an enemy of his. There are ways to do this in prison and not get caught, it seems. Malik is terrified of Cesar and his group of Sicilian thugs, and the scenes of him steeling himself for his first kill are fraught with nervous energy.

Soon, Malik is welcomed into the gang of Sicilians, despite the fact that racism and rivalry usually keep Arabs and Sicilians on opposite ends of the prison. He never grows to be trusted too far, but, thanks to his youth, and his eagerness to fit in (he’s a quick study), and is soon doing more and more elaborate favors for Cesar, including using his parole to delivers messages and goods.

There are several complicated, subtle interplays of power going on in “Un Prophète.” There is the story of how Malik’s power increases as Cesar’s decreases. There is his ability to relate to both Arabs and Sicilians, giving him advantages his more easily identified counterparts do not have, and there’s his youth, giving him a strange advantage of innate trust. Most intriguingly, though, there is Malik’s clear lack of ambition. Despite his actual cutting of throats, he is not a cutthroat criminal, trying his hardest to rise through the ranks. He seems to be pushed up through the ranks by design, and is only too happy to be in a position of untouchability. His survival instinct is such that it gains him power in this situation.

What’s more, Malik is clearly wracked by guilt; the ghost of his first victim (Adel Bencherif) often hangs around his cell.

The camera moves through the claustrophobic corridors like its participating in a knife fight. Smooth and careful at times, exploding into stylistic flourishes when its back is against the wall. The photography is grainy and real. The cells are grimy and claustrophobic. This is no romantic view of prison life, nor is it a glamorization of the criminal lifestyle. It is a powerful crime drama of rapt energy. Seek it out.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. It was an amazing movie, really loved it…

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