Sympathy for an immoral Arab prophet

Un Prophète (A Prophet) (MA). Running time: 155 minutes. Director: Jacques Audiard. Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi

A ProphetIt's no great surprise to hear the name of Jacques Audiard, writer-director of French prison drama Un Prophète (A Prophet), mentioned in the same sentence as American greats such as Martin Scorcese and Brian de Palma.

The film, a frontrunner for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, relates the saga of a 19-year-old Arab man, Malik El Djebena's (Rahim) rise to power and influence during a three year sentence in French prison. The story of a young man balancing ambition and survival as he scales the criminal underworld resonates with classic gangster epics such as Scorcese's Goodfellas and de Palma's Scarface.

Un Prophète also shares those films' penchant for bloody chunks of violence, as well as the cultural and racial disquiet that lends further tension to the characters' already taut existence. It is an unforgettable film that, like its predecessors, evokes sympathy amid immorality.

From the moment of Malik's imprisonment for allegedly attacking police, he finds that if he is to survive, he needs to choose between conflicting evils. He is immediately enlisted by Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), kingpin of a feared Corsican gang and a figure of great influence in the prison, to murder a fellow prisoner, Reyeb (Yacoubi), a witness in an upcoming trial against the mob. If he fulfills the deed, he will win Cesar's protection. If he does not, he will be killed.

Malik does commit the murder — the ultimate crime as an ultimate act of self-preservation — but only after first wrestling his conscience to the ground. In the moments immediately preceding the murder, he inadvertently bonds with Reyeb, who, thinking the young man to be a friend, encourages Malik to use his time in prison to educate and better himself.

There is a hint that Malik has damaged his own moral compass at the moment of Reyeb's bloody execution. He embraces Reyeb's advice to educate himself, as if in this way some good can be drawn from his evil act. Reyeb appears frequently to Malik as a ghost, not to haunt but to counsel and prophesy. The advice he offers proves to be helpful. Malik's own ambition and 'smarts' thus speak through the guise of a demented conscience.

Malik increases in Cesar's esteem, as he proves to be a reliable and motivated minion. Perhaps too motivated: he's opportunistic, and begins to play his own game, to the detriment of his mentor. He sees power first as a means of survival, and later as an end in itself. Cesar arranges for Malik to take day trips outside the prison in order to run errands for the Corsicans, but Malik uses these outings to begin building his own empire. 

Malik is as much an outsider among the Corsicans as he feels among the prison's Muslim contingent. Like the Italian- and Cuban-American non-heroes of Scorsese and de Palma, Malik draws a sense of pride and resilience from his cultural otherness. His Muslim roots appear from time to time, notably during an ethereal stint in solitary. These moments, like Reyeb's ghostly visits, lend transcendence to the film, but no moral credence to Malik's actions. We may sympathise with Malik, but this is an immoral story, uninterested in repentance or redemption.

The contrast between Malik's and Cesar's character arcs works well. Malik's power and influence trend upwards. The old man Cesar's are petering into decline. His time is coming to an end, and Malik, prophet-like, is heralding a new era and a new kind of gangster. The moment when Cesar realises how far behind his former underling has left him is the most poignant in the film. Powerful performances by both Arestrup and Rahim evoke the deep humanity in the hearts of seemingly heartless characters.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Un Prophète, A Prophet, Jacques Audiard, Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi



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