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A Prophet and the Ethics of Prison Films

May 19, 2010
A Prophet

Newcomer Tahar Rahim plays the enigmatic hero of Jacques Audiard's brutal new prison film, A Prophet.

Has there ever been a prison film that didn’t make us long for the protagonist’s freedom? Put another way, has there ever been a prison film that actually endorsed the penal system it depicts? These thoughts occurred to me after seeing Un prophète (A Prophet), Jacques Audiard’s brutal and riveting film about a young Arab man imprisoned in France. For roughly an hour, the film pulls off the rare trick of critiquing the prison system and its conniving protagonist in equal measure. But Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegan (working from an original screenplay by Abdul Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit) ultimately settle for a Shawshank Redemption-like bit of wish fulfillment. Which isn’t to say A Prophet is bad. Only that it, like many other prison films, is unethical.

To be fair, any filmmaker looking to portray prison’s benefits is faced with an inarguable anthropological fact. Prison is a sad, ugly, lonely, sometimes brutal place. To depict it otherwise would be absurd. Its tenants inevitably suffer—that’s kind of the point—and we inevitably sympathize with their suffering. In A Prophet, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) endures his share.

The film opens with a fish-eye view of Malik at a prison intake, stripping and handing over his few worldly possessions. The low angle and limited field of vision suggest the POV of a baby fresh from the womb. It’s appropriate, for Malik is a blank slate. He’s a lost child of the banlieues, illiterate, casually violent, emotionally numb. We see nothing of his previous life. In physical appearance and affect, Rahim calls to mind two American actors I don’t love—Shia LaBeouf and Matthew Fox—with more convincing innocence than the former and more tortured stoicism than the latter.

Audiard’s vision of the French penal system is slightly less dehumanizing than the American one we’re used to seeing on screen. Prisoners have individual cells, take meals alone, shower in private stalls, wear street clothes and receive a baguette with every meal. They’re even eligible for multi-day furloughs. But the notion of prison as a training ground for future (and current) criminal enterprise remains. The prison is split into two factions—the Arabs and the Corsicans—with the Corsicans holding sway over the corrupt administration.

Despite his ethnic background, Malik has no connection to the Arabs. On his first day in the yard, two men steal his shoes. When he fights back, they brutalize him in a urinal. No one comes to his defense. When the Corsicans, led by stocky but vicious César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), need to have an Arab prisoner killed, they pick Malik for the job. His only qualification is that he is unaligned and vulnerable. If he turns down the assignment, the Corsicans will kill him.

This Darwinian ethos is perfectly dramatized in the scene where Malik fulfills the Corsicans’ “request.” Operating at the intersection between sex, drugs and violence, it is the high point of the film. Almost unbearably suspenseful, the sequence communicates Malik’s fear and desperation, but doesn’t let him off the hook for his crime. While we yearn for Malik to survive, we do so with the knowledge that the man he has been sent to kill is kinder, wiser and more principled than our ostensible hero.

Once he is under César’s protection, Malik becomes the Corsican gang’s lackey at their endless cardgames. Meanwhile, Malik quietly improves his position. He learns to read with the help of fellow Arab Ryad (Adel Bencherif), and teaches himself Corsican. When most of César’s Corsican associates are freed as part of a political amnesty, César promotes Malik to righthand man and gets him a job as a mail courier. Malik uses his new freedom of movement and access to partner with Jordi (Reda Ketab), a drug-dealing gypsy looking to expand his operation.

As Malik climbs the prison corporate ladder, we’re never quite sure if he has a plan or is making it up as he goes along. This ambiguity keeps the suspense up, but also deprives us of any sense of Malik’s motivation. There are vague hints—nocturnal visits from the man he killed (Hichem Yacoubi) suggest a measure of guilt—but Audiard and Rahim never give us transparent subjective access to Malik. Audiard’s point may be that there is no difference between planning and improvisation in Malik’s world, but that’s an ideological dodge. As the hip-hop-fueled montage that glamorizes Malik’s transformation into “the man” demonstrates, Audiard seems unsure if he wants to criticize Malik, or celebrate him.

The glamorization of Malik picks up pace as the film evolves into a shadow war of wills between Malik and his mentor-cum-rival César. In contrast to the casually cruel and tempermental César, Malik is unavoidably sympathetic. Never mind that he uses violence to get his way, just like César.

By the point that Malik is organizing a drug-running operation on the outside and manipulating ethnic factions on the inside, he has become that classic gangster archtype: a cool cat who doesn’t reveal his loyalties to anyone—even the audience—but is setting everything up for the perfect score. If that makes A Prophet sound a bit like a fantastic crime opera like Scarface, well, that’s because it is.

And yet, Audiard’s directorial talents make it easy to ignore the film’s troubling ethics. Much of the film is shot with a Steadicam, with an inordinate amount of extreme close-ups, creating an unnerving sense of claustrophobia. Malik’s vaguely prophetic, possibly supernatural dreams provide a surreal undercurrent to the film, adding to the suspense generated by Malik’s motivational opacity. Aesthetically and narratively, A Prophet captivates from the first frame to the last. I’m just not so sure that’s a good thing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad permalink
    May 20, 2010 1:16 pm

    While not a film, Oz comes to mind as at least giving a more balanced view of the system it depicts. The authority figures are generally more good-intentioned than not (with some notable exceptions,) though hampered by bureaucracy and the near-impossible task their charges present. And while there are certainly prisoners for whom the audience feels sympathy, the flashbacks to their crimes make it, in most cases, difficult to wish for their freedom.

  2. May 22, 2010 7:35 pm

    The fact that your example comes from television is very interesting. Open-ended episodic television can’t be structured around the pursuit of one’s freedom, unless it’s forever delayed (Lost, Gilligan’s Island, etc.). Even in those examples, viewers, I think, don’t really want to see the protagonists escape because the viewers are so invested in the fictive world. The same could be said for Oz. Movies, with their built-in endtimes, operate in a totally different way.

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