Un Prophète / A Prophet (2009, France)
There are plenty who are touting this as a masterpiece of dark and gritty prison realism. And there are certainly some masterful bits. But is it a prison movie masterpiece? I’m not so sure.
Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is 19 and an outsider. He’s illiterate, a Muslim, and has spent time in juvenile institutions. But this is his first time in prison, and he’s copped a six year whack. He has a tough initiation. He is assaulted, has his shoes taken from him, and then the Corsican crime boss, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), calls him over and puts a proposition to him: kill this other bloke for us or we’ll kill you. Not great options. Back in his cell, Malik gets on the cell intercom and asks to speak with the Warden. Moments later, two men come to the door, throw a plastic bag over his head and nearly asphyxiate him. Cesar clearly has the guards in his pocket, too. There is no way out.
Malik does the job. Bloodily. He now has the protection of the Corsicans, but it’s an uneasy position in which he finds himself: shunned by the Muslims who see him as a Corsican, and treated with contempt by the Corsicans because he’s an Arab. But he’s a quick learner who makes the most of his circumstances. He learns to read. As he hangs around the Corsicans, subserviently making coffee and mopping up after them, he lives Gangsterism 101, and then immerses himself in Advanced Gangsterism with violence, intimidation and deal-making as his elective subjects.
It’s here that the movie becomes less of a prison movie, and more of a gangster-operating-out-of-a-prison movie. Cesar’s character is magnificent. He leaves nothing to chance. He has the whole prison in his pocket, and gets what he wants. He wants Malik to do some jobs for him on the outside, and arranges for him to get day leave passes. When Malik practises his newly learned skills and does a bit of freelancing in the hash business, Cesar reacts with stunning viciousness – mindful that if Malik’s rogue activity (unprotected by bent staff) comes to notice it will jeopardise his leave program and destroy his usefulness as a go-between.
It’s a long film. It takes time for Malik to grow older and wiser. The repetitive prison routines provide much of the rhythm of the movie; the same groups assembling in the yard and in cells, the endless cups of coffee, the daily breadsticks, the predictability of the prisoners’ exercise. At one level, it’s humdrum, punctuated by occasional moments of great excitement. On another, one senses the unrelenting tension, with at best an uneasy truce between gangs. It’s in this structured, claustrophobic world that Malik moves from survivor to leader, exploiting his capacity to move between the two groups.
What detracts marginally from it as a truly great prison movie is that while some aspects of prison life are captured beautifully, it is essentially a prison controlled by the inmates. Other than the guards in Cesar’s pocket, one hardly sees a staff member. It’s a prison which bears no discernible imprint of the system. There is seemingly little interest in intervening in the gang warfare, the drug trafficking, the cell phones being used by prisoners, the organised crime activity. Prison officials can be corrupt, ineffectual and impotent, but rarely are they quite so absent, so incidental.
Perhaps that’s a minor quibble. The acting is superb (assisted, it seems, by a number of ex-convicts playing inmates), the setting authentic, and Malik’s journey compelling. See it.
Posted on February 21st, 2010 at 6:42 pm. Updated on March 7th, 2016 at 8:00 pm.
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