The French film Un prophète, from director Jack Audiard, is a movie driven by story. It’s about Malik El Djebena, a young Arab man who was incarcerated for a petty crime, and his attempts to survive and thrive in prison. The prison is dominated by a Corsican mob, the leader of which is César Luciani, the 60-ish Godfather, who rules with an iron fist. César has the place sewn up- from the small-time crooks to the Warden, they all bow to him. Malik, who is bright but uneducated and illiterate, is forced into César’s circle by coincidence, and is taken on as a low-level enforcer for the gang; a position that gains him a variety of perks and privileges. Yet he never really belongs. To the Corsicans, he is a filthy Arab (albeit a useful one), while to the other Arab inmates, he is a Corsican stooge, selling out his people for his own profit. Malik decides to take charge- learning to read and write, taking classes in economics, and picking up every thing he can from César and his men, including the details of the drug trade and picking up on the Italian they speak amongst themselves.
The movie has it’s own stylistic stamp -dream sequences, a striking visual motif of images that are black except for a distorted section, evoking a pin-hole camera- but in it’s telling and milieu it bears resemblance to other recent Europeans crime films, like last year’s Gomorrah. Fortunately, it lacks the nihilistic abandon of Gomorrah, the acceptance of bleakness ‘in the name of realism’. That film was masked by an insincere sadness, but really, it was merely a fetishization of despair (an accusation that can also be pointed at some of the lauded Romanian new wave films like the dismally bleak ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days’). Things suck because that’s the way of the world. Un prophète is equally unflinching in its acceptance and depiction of corruption and violence, but is given a center – weight, humanity and possibilities for change- by its main character. It doesn’t blame immorality on the nature of the world.
Malik is the author of his own fate. Although he enters the world of drugs and murder through coercion, he quickly settles in, finds his place, and looks for ways he can benefit. As Malik, Tahar Rahim gives a phenomenal performance. We aren’t with him because of his looks or charisma. We are with him because he’s smart, resourceful and above all determined. Even when being spat on by the Corsicans and shunned by the Arabs, Malik goes on about his tasks, spying for César, passing information to and from the outside world, all with the confidence that things will turn out in his favor.
César, in a magnetic performance by Niels Aerstrup, initially takes Malik for a poor sucker to be used for menial tasks, but comes to realize his worth. But he is no Don Corleone, the soft-spoken romanticized version of a godfather who cares only for family. He is cruel and calcucating and threatening, and even when he needs someone, acts as if he only barely abides their presence. He offers Malik importance, the power of being in the ruling class of the prison, even if only as an errand boy. Though his name is remarkably portentous -his first name being Caesar and his family names evoking Lucky Luchiano- his power does slowly erode, which inspires Malik to gain more and more influence with César, as well as cultivate his own criminal enterprise.
For Malik, the only respite from the (partially self-imposed) cruelty of César are his dreams, in which Reyeb, his first murder victim, prominently figures.
Reyeb was an Arab criminal who passed through the prison, in the process of testifying against the Corsican mob. Aware of his precarious position, Reyeb steered clear of the Corsicans, only leaving his room to shower. It is there that he first meets Malik, whom he tries to proposition for oral sex. Malik forcefully declines, but news of the offer makes its way to César, who coerces Malik -under threat of kill or be killed- to encourage Reyeb’s advances. After realizing that he has no alternative (attempts to get put in solitary confinement are thwarted by the warden), Malik painfully practices how to quickly produce a hidden razor blade and cut a victim’s jugular vein. When the time comes (the guards conveniently being occupied elsewhere), Malik goes to Reyeb’s cell. Reyeb is suspicious, but kind. He proposes that Malik use his time to study, and he offers to help Malik to learn to read. Once the opportunity presents itself, however, Malik produces the blade, and after an unbelievably intense and ugly struggle, successfully carries out his task.
Reyeb represents Malik’s descent into this immoral world, but the few minutes spent before the bloody crucible make a deep mark on Malik. Those few minutes of care and kindness from a fellow Arab are represented in his dreams as a contrast to César, who represents opportunism and power.
Those two forces -power and violence- that compel and repel Malik are here entwined, and Malik is aware that to enjoy the strength of the former, one must accept the compromise of the latter. And Audiard, to his ultimate credit, fully embraces the implications of both. The violence is ugly and tense and not at all thrilling in the conventional sense. Although only a few seconds long, the murders inspire a moral reckoning in Malik, both in the time leading up to them and in their aftermath. The tension surrounding these scenes is long and agonizing, and the only thrill is in seeing Malik survive. This reaches a cathartic climax in Malik’s last killing, a dramatic action-hero-type stunt that results in a bloodbath. It is presented as a breaking point, like Michael Corleone’s scene in that restaurant- the moment where our protagonist decides to fully accept the man he’s become, embracing the violence.
Unlike Michael Corleone, though, Malik doesn’t turn into an callous zombie, but excuses his own behavior by gradually channeling it into the righteous indignation of the Muslim-immigrant community in Europe. He cultivates connections with the Arabs in the prison, as well as friends outside (Allusions to terrorism born of class-conflicts can be found, but it is not something Audiard dwells upon). Once his relationship with César finally sours beyond repair, he switches sides. The power and benefits he enjoyed by being associated with the Corsicans is seemingly validated, now that he is a major part of his own natural community (after the perverse second-class status he had with the Corsicans). Like the ending of the first Godfather, Malik accepts the community he was born into and rejects morality for the sake of power. A telling difference, though, is that while Michael Corleone gained power, he pushed his family away. The final image we see of Malik shows how important he has become since we first met him, yes, but also shows the beginnings of a family.