Un prophete



(Cinestudio-May 19, 2010)


What a film! I was a bit worried this movie would stray from its greatness during one overly-artistic sequence when our lead character is dreaming and we witness a sequence of what I presumed was his past—of what went down prior to the movie, and how he winds up the person he is. After the film finished though, I wanted to reevaluate that sequence, for I think it may be deeper and have a meaning or connotation that I missed. Fantasy sequences with deer make me think this. I know this sounds weird, but roll with it.

Why would it have bothered me if his past was exposed? Well, the film wouldn’t be as great, didn’t I say that already? What  Jacques Audiard created in “Un prophete” is the tale of Malik El Djebena (brilliantly portrayed by Tahar Rahim), a low rent down-on-his-luck hood, who goes to prison for a crime we are not even sure he committed. What we are sure of is that he is not that bad of a guy. He tries to mind his business and the thought of murder makes him sick. He wants to serve his time in prison and be left alone. His time in prison, however, creates the ultimate bad guy—a brilliant criminal.

Sure, it is not a new story. But it is told so pitch-perfect, with enough shock and humor, that you never once feel you’ve been told this story before, even as you begin to understand where it is leading.

It is a rag to riches story about a boy with no power who uses his cunning and smarts to slowly play in the big leagues. Malik is a young Arab who is easily pushed around and intimidates nobody. He knows this. He knows this is how the people feel. And he uses this to his benefit. Meanwhile, he attempts to benefit and play all sides under the noses of just about everybody—because everybody thinks they can push him around, why worry?

He takes prison courses, becomes a scholar, befriends people from all facets of prison life, and always lets himself get pushed around when necessary and stand his ground when essential.

In a way, it’s a lot like the Don Corleone back story, except told in a prison. I never thought this while watching it, but am thinking it now. While watching it, I was too engrossed to think much of anything outside the world of the film.

At nearly two hours and forty minutes, “Un prophete” is no short ride, but it seems to use its time well. I find it fascinating the care that Audiard takes in setting up the character of Malik. While he doesn’t reveal what happened before his time in prison, we feel we know basically everything from that point on. Audiard is not afraid to let the film stretch and breathe. It a mastery of mood and timing, I envy. There are little segments of the film that I thought to myself I might have cut out to bring the running time down. And yet they belong in place. They make the film what it is. Notice all the preliminary business that occurs before Malik completes his first “favor” to Luciano. This is all integral stuff. And yet some of it is repeated information. I can’t say I know why it’s right and necessary. All I can say is that I’m glad Audiard knew that it was.
And who better than Rahim to play the lead character? He is no pretty face. He looks kind of goofy and a push over, at times looking like the awkward mating of Jean-Pierre Leaud with Vince Vaughn II (the Apple guy) while portraying a Mexican. He is a slight figure; one that has had to fight for everything and appears not to have been given a chance for much. On the outside, more of the same probably would occur. But the prison is where he thrives.

I went on a bit earlier about the lack of back story. This is not entirely true. Malik’s body pays witness to his past. It is marked and scarred, as if whipped. He has not had an easy life, and his body is an artifact to pains we can only guess at. It is a mark of brilliance that this stands for itself with no discussion or qualification.

This is the third of the five nominees for the Foreign flick Oscar that I have seen, and so far I feel these films are for the most part superior to our American choices, maybe because there is more to choose from, and each country has already selected its “winner” for consideration. Next up, I’ll be seeing the winner of the award, and if it is truly worthy to have beaten “The White Ribbon,” “Ajami,” and “Un prophete,” I should surely be in for a treat.


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