Un Prophète

This is best film I’ve seen all year and in honor of its DVD release next Tuesday, I thought I might encourage all to bump it up to the top of your Netflix queues. Jacques Audiard’s film (which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film this past February) is best described as magical neo-realism and tells the story of Malik, a passive, scared, eighteen-year-old who speaks French and Arabic but has been a ward of the state for so long, he really doesn’t know who or what he is. Serving a six-year prison sentence for assault, Malik’s first days are grim, but he is soon made an offer by the Corsican crime syndicate who runs life behind bars . . . let’s just say it’s an offer he can’t refuse (and one which will change the course of his life in ways not even Malik can fully comprehend). As the days and weeks and months and years accumulate, Malik grapples with issues of loyalty, morality, religion and guilt in a coming-of-age drama which is truly epic in scope. Un Prophète instantly evokes comparisons to Coppola’s The Godfather, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Meirelles’ City of God. It really is that good.

6 thoughts on “Un Prophète”

  1. What a dilemma: A Prophet and Kick-Ass both release on DVD on the same day but I only put one DVD back in the mail today. I’ll ask my kids which to put at #1.

  2. Well, if I were a teenager, I know what I’d choose . . . but Kick-Ass is warmed-over chump change compared to A Prophet. Your oldest might dig it, though there is some pretty rough violence and sexuality.

  3. Very compelling film–I really (really) liked it, but it felt a little hemmed in by the limits of its central narrative arc. The acting is phenomenal, across the board but particularly Tahar Rahim as Malik–the camera is so often tight on his face, and it never is a wasted shot. The whole film is there in his eyes.

    I also loved the (too-infrequent) interruptions of the fantastic and/or filmic. I like your label of neo-realism, and at times the film does seem almost Dardennian: over the shoulder, in the mix as these characters grapple for authority, dignity, control in the yard, in their cells. But whenever it burst those seams (the obscure deer dream, the haunting of Malik) I felt like the film got inside the heads and experience in an invigorating disruption of the confines (of the prison, and of the crime film).

    I was particularly struck by two important but less-explored dimensions. The ethnic tensions (between the Corsicans and “the Arabs”) were skillfully defined, but the film keeps its eyes inside the prison–and I’d have loved even some suggestive hints, if not more outright sketching/narrating, of the broader social context. (I think the French wouldn’t have had this problem; early on, news reports talk about Sarkozy’s decisions re Corsican prisoners, and I know next to nothing about this–perhaps I’m just signalling my ignorance of how the film does, actually, resonate with broader social concerns.)

    And, of course, religion. Malik seems to flirt with engaging with broader faith traditions, or he’s just exploiting it–and, again, the film suggests dimensions I kind of wish it had explored.

    But it’s extraordinarily compelling as a tight character study. Good stuff; thanks for the rec, Jeff.

  4. SPOILERS!!!!

    liked it too. 4 stars for you people who, like me, like to keep score. i wonder at the appeal of mafia films that involve young naifs who eventually outsmart everyone else (The Godfather, of course, but also Donnie Brasco, kinda sorta). no. i wonder at the appeal of mafia films in general. god knows it’s a really solid genre. maybe we are attracted by the raw power of men — a power that is checked only by the confines imposed by competition and, also, a certain bizarre inside code of loyalty that all too often gives way to betrayal. or maybe we like the constant edge of the upcoming betrayal. and it is certainly titillating to see these guys use violence as the one and only tool for control, both by deploying it and bydangling it as a threat but ultimately withholding it.

    when the naif plays the major character, we identify — and it’s certainly easy to identify with fantastically played malik, a boy who seems lost and not particularly smart from beginning to end but plays his cards with incredible cunning.

    and then there is the whole question of masculinity, this obsession cinema has with investigating its role playings, its strengths, its weakenesses, its homoeroticism (many hints at blow jobs in this movie but not a single displayed one), and its construction, without much bothering with deconstructing it. it’s a fantastic fantasy that makes us all, guys and girls, a little more macho just in virtue of having been immersed for a couple of hours in the testosterone vat.

    thanks jeff for commanding that i push it up my (incredibly slow moving) netflix queue. i did it as soon as you issued the command, and look how long it took me to get here.

  5. The “question of masculinity”, indeed! We’ve been reading Aeschylus’ 458 bce trilogy, The Oresteia, in theatre history class over the last couple of weeks. Athens/Attica was an enforcer and protector of lesser city-states during 5th century Greece (maybe Pericles was the first “godfather”) – its imperial power ranging far and wide. Ambassadors from across the Greek world and Asia Minor visited the city-state every year to attend the City Dionysia, watch the competition between three state-selected tragedians, and pay tribute (money, slaves, natural resources) to the city which “protected” them from potential barbarian harm . . . all in the name of performing (or making concrete) the Athenian demos. Of course, Greek tragedy is full of powerful, often polarizing female characters, and my students continually return to these performances of female agency in a culture which effectively silenced women, relegating them to the domestic space (radical feminist Sue-Ellen Case reads against Aeschylus’ text, positing Cassandra as the perfect metaphor for Athenian women: forceful yet impotent, full of insight yet cursed to never be “heard”). My students are constantly inquiring as to why such a homosocial society put so much emphasis on female usurpers and disrupters in their cultural production. Big question, but I always attempt to turn them to interrogate the representations of masculinity in these plays. In essence, anti-female rhetoric emerged out of a cultural context which did contain and oppress women, but these plays also put on trial masculinity’s self-assertion as violent and self-destructive spectacle. As Simon Goldhill writes: “Tragedy kicks at the struts and props of maleness, and nothing is more at risk in tragedy’s arena than the secure boundaries of masculine self-definition.”

    I guess I write all this in response to your response, Gio. This may not be a cinema-thing. It may very well be central to Western culture . . . possibly all human cultures. That kind of vulnerability – one that reaches back thousands of years – is particularly telling.

    OK, that was a tangent.

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