Award-winning film 'Un prophète' visionary, violent
Tough, deeply felt French film finally arrives in Tucson
"The idea is to leave here a little smarter," Reyeb says to fellow inmate Malik in Jacques Audiard’s Oscar-nominated men-in-prison film, "Un prophète" ["A Prophet"]. The film opened at The Loft Cinema on Friday, finally making its way to Tucson.
"A Prophet" has been garnering comparisons to "The Godfather," but that’s disingenuous. It owes more Jean Genet's prison memoir "Our Lady of the Flowers" than to Mario Puzo's crime novels. The criminals here are put in a context where they’re stripped of glamour, and our protagonist, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), lacks all Corleone-like ostentation.
At the start of the film, Malik’s a nobody, a Muslim street kid who’s not devout, who has no ties to the outside world, no family, no skills, no clout. He’s thrown into prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer, and right away is targeted. His sneakers are stolen, he’s sexually harassed in the prison showers.
Soon, the Corsican mob heavies who are doing time alongside Malik see an opportunity to exploit his anonymity. He’s escorted to the periphery of their world, forced to be their errand boy. The other Muslims shun him as a traitor.
He’s a fascinating hero, precisely because he’s so marginal. The stakes of the movie are personal and wrenching. How can a kid like Malik make it in this world? Here, survival is the ultimate virtue.
This is Rahim’s movie, though Niels Arestrup as the Corsican mob boss is an unforgettable mix of heartbreak and rage. As ballast for the performances is Audiard’s camerawork, which often wanders away from the action to peer out of windows into rain gutters and up blank concrete walls.
The film is visionary in the best sense, in that its plot confidently powers forwards but is always girded by small spectacles that are dazzling and unnerving. "A Prophet" has a healthy dose of surrealism; a staccato nighttime flight of deer, a murdered man who reappears in a shirt made of cinders, who offers his murderer a burning finger as birthday candle, an erotic fever dream of violence featuring two naked men grappling in bloodied sheets, brandishing forks and gnashing teeth.
Audiard splits the difference between assassination and rumination. This movie bleeds profusely (and features what’s probably cinema's most explosive jugular geyser) but it also contemplates. Often, those quieter moments are the most arresting.
The show-don’t-tell economy of the script banks on audience intelligence. Arestrup’s mournful mobster never betrays himself in words, so Audiard just shows us his melancholy in gestures and glances so we know what he’s thinking without being told.
I’ve can’t think of another movie that’s so tough but also so deeply felt. It’s the anti-Guy Ritchie movie. The boneheaded machismo of common crime films is subverted by the three-dimensionality of the characters. One can’t underestimate how indispensible Tahar Rahim is to all this; he’s the anti-Jason Statham ("Snatch"); Rahim has both swagger and depth. We fall in love with Malik for this tenderness and ruthlessness.
Partway through the film, Malik is allowed to take 12-hour leaves from his prison life. Eventually he’s even sent on a plane to Marseille to conduct some mob business. At the airport security checkpoint, he’s asked – as is common custom – to hold out his arms while the guard waves a metal detector over him. Unthinking, Malik also opens his mouth wide and sticks out his tongue; it’s the prison protocol he’s used to, but it doesn’t fit this new setting.
That’s just one of the dozens of small moments that break your heart, and make you wish harder than anything that Malik will find a way to live through the closing credits. You’ll have to go see "A Prophet" to find out.
Sean Bottai is a Tucson-based novelist and journalist. He teaches at the University of Arizona.