Un Prophete – Review


French prison drama that exceeds on nearly every level

When it comes to the gangster film, the French have done it so well over the years that it’s hard to argue against them being the French cinema as the true pioneers behind the modern take on the genre. With the New Wave influenced Scorsese, et al, and thus leading to the wave of crime films that has given us some of the best examples of American cinema. So it’s interesting to see a modern French film compete with that level of quality with Un Prophete (released as A Prophet), which comes to the States after being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a teenager sentenced to a six year stretch in prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. The new man in the joint, he’s called upon by a Corsican crime boss (Niels Arestrup) to kill a man. If he doesn’t, Malik will be killed by the Corsican mob that dominates the prison. After the murder, Malik begins a coming of age journey that leads him on a path of self-discovery set against his time in prison.

What immediately stands out about Un Prophete is its atmosphere. Using former prisoners as technical advisors, as well as extras, Jacques Audiard gives the film an immediate authenticity. Most films involving prison and prisoners tend to make it a bit too glamorous, so to speak. Prison doesn’t look like the hell it’s been described or is conversely almost comical in its misery. Audiard makes Malik’s prison into a place hospitable for some but quite a hell for anyone more civilized then the criminals who inhabit it. The more Audiard wanders through it the more uncomfortable it is; he has a slow, deliberate pace that allows us to see Malik as he eventually adapts to this world he finds himself in. There’s no peace, only the occasional awkward pause in the world of violence they inhabit.

It is dark and grimy, sanitary but not quite clean, and it is in this world Malik finds himself growing into the sort of man being around evil will do to someone. Tahir Rahim does a wonderful job in the role as he goes from wide-eyed convict to an assured, wannabe crime boss. Rahim never overplays what is a strong hand he is dealt with; Malik is a well-written, fully realized character over the span of the nearly 150 minute film but Rahim never takes this for granted. Malik is really three different characters throughout the film. The first act finds him as the new guy on the block, still somewhat innocent, as he finds his place amongst the prison population. The second act finds him hardened but still unsure of where to proceed as the Corsican mob’s influence begins to weaken. The third finds Malik as the type of crime boss he’s been around and developed into.

Audiard, who also scripted the film, deliberately paces the film so that this eventual transformation is one that grows over time and isn’t rushed. This is the story of the loss of innocence and the gain of evil in one man as he embraces his role in the serpent’s nest; he handles it slow and methodically, to give us time to see him come of age in such a perverse manner. This isn’t a positive story, but crime films never are. But it’s also brilliant, which few crime films rarely are.

Director: Jacques Audiard
Notable Cast: Tahir Rahim, Niels Arestrup
Writer(s): Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Rauof Dafri, Nicolas Peaufaillit