A PROPHET (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

Tahar Rahim (best actor, European Film Awards, César, Lumière Award) is excellent as 19-year-old Malik El Djebena, who enters prison an innocent, like Marie Allen in Caged (John Cromwell, 1950), and likewise is brutalized into becoming a hardened criminal. Malik’s North African Arab paternity has ensured his status as misfit in French society, and in the past he has manned, or boyed, the revolving door of juvenile detention facilities. Strip-searched and beaten on the first day of his six-year sentence for allegedly assaulting a police officer, formless, passive, illiterate, without connections or prospects outside prison, Malik is poised for a Darwinian education. Ironically, he ends up both integrated and assimilated, having embraced the part of his background that makes him an outsider, and having turned against his white “protector,” vicious César Luciani (Niels Arestrup, best supporting actor César), who heads the prison’s Corsican population and more or less runs the place. Almost immediately César impresses Malik into his service, ordering him to befriend and kill, upon threat of his own death, an Arab prisoner who is set to testify in court against César’s associates. This, his first murder, takes a bloody long time and leaves Malik shaking. On eventual leaves from prison, Malik does César’s murderous bidding outside as well, in Paris and elsewhere, and a few mystical touches hint his alternative protection from the spirit of his first victim—less projection, this, than a displacement of his former humanity. César generally treats Malik as a slave; Malik has become his property. César berates Malik: “People look at you and see me.”
     Early in the film, Jacques Audiard (a plethora of best film, direction and, along with his co-scenarists, writing awards) so brandishes point-of-view shots keyed to Malik’s disoriented and terrified subjectivity that subsequent superficially objective shots likewise resonate with Malik’s view of things—a series of out-of-body observations, if you will. Malik’s existence, now, courts survival, both in the present and with an eye to his release from prison. His dormant humanity occasionally springs forth, as when his (likely) first experience as an airplane passenger draws an unaccustomed, and very moving, smile.
     The film’s title: Un prophète.


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