A definitive standout at this week’s European Film Panorama is Jacques Audiard’s prison drama, “Un prophète, winner of this year’s Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Audiard’s fifth feature, which also won the best feature at the London Film Festival and the prestigious Louis Delluc prize, is a perfect genre film; a gritty, hard-edged crime saga that ranks among the very finest entertainments released this year.
Audiard’s first film since 2005’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the surprise winner of the César best film award, details the gradual rise of 19-year-old Arab Malik El-Djebena (newcomer Tahar Rahim) from a callow hoodlum to the prison’s ringleader and a resourceful, fearsome mobster.
With no money or connections to protect his back, the illiterate Malik – whose past history is never revealed – is soon drawn into the web of the Corsican mob (Corsica is a Mediterranean island, located west of Italy), lead by kingpin César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) who rules the prison.
César gives Malik an offer he can’t refuse: He must murder a neighboring inmate named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), who has previously offered Malik drugs in exchange for sex, or else his gang will kill him. Malik unwillingly carries out the “mission, an episode that haunts him for the six-year duration of his captivity.
Estranged from the Arab community and derided by the Corsicans who refer to him as “the dirty Arab, the quick-witted Malik, like all Audiard’s heroes, starts the process of self-education, gaining the trust of César, forging new alliances inside and outside prison and setting the building blocks of a thriving career.
The film is based on an original script by Abdel Raouf Dafri, writer of last year’s two-part epic smash “Mesrine and creator of “La commune, an acclaimed TV drama that was taken off the air for featuring a cast entirely comprised of black and Arab characters. Dafri seems to have found his perfect match in Audiard, a man celebrated for creating numerous iconic characters. In Malik, Audiard has arguably created the first iconic Arab hero in French cinema.
Adopting the heightened realism of Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorra (2008) without its sense of detachment, Audiard’s suffuses his film with many details that enriches the story instead of dragging it down.
Despite its 150-minute length, the film remains gripping and engaging throughout, thanks to Rahim’s astonishingly subtle and deeply sympathetic performance and Audiard’s visually-inventive interludes that include, most prominently, Reyeb’s ghost who acts like Malik’s guardian angel. Most action takes place in small, claustrophobic spaces (prison cells, front seat of a car), creating an intensely thrilling visceral effect, especially in the harrowing Reyeb murder scene.
In many ways, “Un prophète can be a seen as an anthropological study of a sub-culture as much as a microcosmic representation of France with its racism and classicism, where the Arabs are suppressed by the domination of the whites. Although he shrugged off the allegorical religious nuances in previous interviews, what strikes me the most though about Audiard’s film is his conception of a modern-day prophet.
The religious connotations are pretty palpable: In order to rise in rankings and lead his community, Malik must learn to read first, a reference to the first command of the Quran (explicitly uttered by Reyeb in one sequence). Near the end of the film, Malik must spend 40 days and 40 nights at a solitary confinement (an allusion to the 40 days and nights Jesus spent at the wilderness) in order to overcome his demons and cleanse his soul before he takes over the prison.
Unlike Jesus or Prophet Mohamed, Malik saves no one but himself. His prophecies are strictly Darwinian; his subsequent evolution is primarily driven by an instinct to survive. The limited possibility of goodness is positioned in a corrupt, animalistic world where religion is reduced to a mere business constituent.
In a society that refuses to accept him, an innocent Malik has no choice but to become this man. Malik finds no one to save him, no higher power to guide him. In this world of his, it’s everyman for himself. Malik doesn’t have a free will; he’s a product of an old, large system of predators and preys, and so is César, who’s not the real villain in here. Perhaps that’s why his inevitable downfall is somewhat disquieting to watch.
“Un prophète lacks the ingenious deviations of Audiard’s “Read My Lips or the dizzying edginess and ambition of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped. In working within the traditional margins of the crime genre, Audiard has nonetheless managed to expand his palette, hone his storytelling and create his most accomplished work to date.
“Un prophète is screening on Friday, Dec. 18, at CityStars Cinema. For the full schedule and more information about the fest, visit www.misreurofilms.net