Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.
Running time: 155 minutes
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Thomas Bidegain & Jacques Audiard
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci
Here now, is a most powerful and emotional film; Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète, a story of one man’s growing up in a violent prison system.
Prophète is captivating, unrelenting and even epic as it goes about its business of turning a familiar, well-worn story into an engrossing character study. It runs for two-and-a-half hours, but there is a turbulent sense of brevity to it. I came out on the other side breathless; blindsided by something truly great.
Audiard, a talented and detail-oriented auteur who has been making films in France for years, steps up his game for Prophète. He sets out to tell a simple story in a complex, socially volatile environment, and he arranges every single scene with a painter’s grace and a street fighter’s avarice.
The performances feature a texture seldom seen in prison tales, and the cinematography and score are stand-alone works of beauty that come together to serve the film flawlessly. Audiard studies human nature and racial discord with a dangerously close magnification and the result is a narrative that has a weight and a substance to it. You can hold it in your hands and observe it; there is more here than empty calories or art-house artifice.
Un Prophète begins with Malik, a near illiterate 19 yr old Arab teenager, embarking upon a six year long prison sentence that will shape and mold him into an adult. Scared and timid inside the prison walls, it isn’t long before Malik is taken under the wing of an old, wizened gangster named Cesar, head of a Corsican gang.
The important detail here is that Malik himself is also half Corsican, and Cesar isn’t the kindly old mentor of a more benign movie, but a fearsome, formidable crime boss who wields significant power in the prison and stages acts of violence that only incite the racial tensions within their cloistered walls. He builds Malik’s education and takes interest in him, but sends him out on missions of destruction that start to shatter and reform the younger man’s psyche.
Most devastating and significant of these is when Cesar commissions Malik to kill Reyeb, another Arab inmate. At this point, Malik is finding his feet amidst the society he’s been thrust in, and although we never know the crime that landed him there, we are party to every act he commits on the inside. Now, he is becoming a wayward entity, an Arab turned against his own people, in as much as the social construction of a prison can accommodate such a possessive concept as ‘a people’. Cesar sees his value, and purposefully edges him forward towards greater responsibility and exposure. As Malik grows into his own man, he is also becoming one without real friends or a family.
Here, at the film’s most crucial juncture, Audiard lights a fire under the performances and instills a compelling personal quality to the relationship between Malick and Cesar. Wisely, Audiard envisions whole passages of the picture as face to face episodes between the two men. There is a sweeping grace and a harsh brutality to the rest, but in these conversational sequences we do not see the calm of the storm, but the pressure system that’s driving it.
Tahar Rahim turns in a magnificent performance that rarely feels like acting. He has to make us believe that we are witnessing the impact of six years within a violent world upon a naive and unassuming soul. For the film to work as it does, he also needs to hide pieces of Malik away, until the audience is ready to see them.
Niels Arestrup as Cesar has the trickiest role; he is a brutal, dangerous man who deceptively hides under a mask of aging frailty. Arestrup doesn’t overwhelm his scenes with Rahim, but plays off of the younger man and draws out of him the depths of Malik’s personality. An American movie might go for big fireworks, but Un Prophète is happy to merely observe the resentment and animosity boiling under the surface of this pair.
Un Prophète was one of the films nominated for Best Foreign picture at this year’s Oscars, and it was easily the best of the entries. There is still, to this day, a natural fear of subtitles in the film world at large, but as previous movies like The Lives of Others, Pan’s Labyrinth and Departures proved, it is a barrier well worth overcoming. To pass by Un Prophète would be to miss-out on one of the year’s richest cinematic treasures.