Thrills-and-spills jailbird Bildungsroman or darkly poetic gangster thriller? Whatever it is, Audiard’s Un Prophète is the arthouse blockbuster par excellence.
A Self-Made Hero by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
With a string of awards behind it already (London, Cannes and the Prix Louis Delluc) as well as a flurry of César nominations and a Foreign Language Oscar firmly in its crosshairs, Un Prophète even looks set to outdo Jacques Audiard’s previous stroke of genius, De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté. There seems to be something about prison movies that moves us, speaks directly to us. Skylight yearning in a handheld, grainy existence. So perhaps, rather than France’s answer to The Godfather, Un Prophète is more a savage riposte to Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption. No mellifluous Morgan Freeman voiceover here. Instead, Un Prophète is the dregs of a shot of arabic coffee, gritty and bitterly invigorating.
With a name suggesting an arabic clay coffee pot, 19-year-old Malik El Djebena enters the prison an empty vessel. After years stultifying in youth detention centres, he is illiterate and innumerate, no friends, family or religion to speak of. With no-one to send him parcels or tell him not to eat pork, his convictions and allegiances are fluid. Like a lump of unmoulded clay. As Malik, Tahar Rahim gives a sublime performance, deftly depicting Malik’s criminal development from amoral ingénu to cutthroat kingpin. It’s a similar trajectory to Audiard’s other discreet heroes, creating a life out of nothing, but this time Audiard poetically recreates Malik’s restricted world view using vignette cinematography, developing only a small section of the world from the blackness. All the same, given the choice between kill or be killed, Malik slits the Arab grass Reyeb’s throat, and is taken under the roost-ruling Corsicans’ wing. Les jeux sont faits.
Played with disturbing unpredictability by Niels Arestrup, César Luciani, the satanic leader of the Corsicans, treats Malik as an Arab serving boy, fit only for cleaning his cell and making coffee. But as Malik seizes every chink of an opportunity as it comes – learning economics, Arabic, French and Corsican or developing a drugs trade on the side – he starts to straddle the two gangs, playing the Corsicans and the Arabs against each other. This boy’s got balls.
In fact, in Un Prophète a good pair of couilles are the ne plus ultra of criminal masculinity. Malik has the balls to be both César’s put-upon pawn and an empire-building fink, just as his friend and drugs-buddy Ryad (his time sealed by testicular cancer) is the only one with the cojones to go all the way and join Malik in the assassination of the Italian mafiosi. Walking through the valley of death, cannon to the left and right, Malik tortuously finds his place in the world, a precarious prophet slowly descending into criminality before his meteoric rise.
Malik may be a Godfather in the making, but this wily jailbird on the make is still only a boy. As he flies for the first time (to Marseilles on day-release) we see the sheer delight and childlike innocence written on his face. His lyrical dreams of deer running before headlights or his Truffautian longing for the seaside are tinged with bitterness, as one ends up roadkill, the other on the prison floor. Like a pious penitent, he is haunted by the ghost of his first kill, a genie who befriends him in the afterlife, predicting “only snow” for Malik in his Hira Cave. Another indication perhaps of the frailty of the bounty raining down upon him which will one day melt away. Reyeb is a djinn, an all-seeing angel, naming Malik as a prophet and urging him to learn the rules of the game and recite them, as Gabriel once did to Mohammed.
Jacques Audiard has said Un Prophète is aimed at the Arabs in France, “creating icons, images for people who don’t have images.” So it is as a prophet of Islam that we should read Malik’s vocation, a messenger and teacher guided by Allah. With two Arabic phrases calligraphied onscreen, Economie and Récite, Audiard indicates Malik’s mission, to improve the world and worship God. But while his survival in prison, double-crossing the Corsicans and pulling the Arabs’ strings, may be divinely inspired, cunning does not a prophet make.
Like a moth, Malik emerges from 40 nights in the hole as the holocaust rages above. But if Malik surfaces as prophet triumphant, it is not because he has built an empire, his smouldering power materialised in the cortege of black cars that follow him from the prison gates. But because he has become a father and a believer. A man humble enough to walk with his new make-shift family.
It’s a terrifying, spine-tingling ending. The door is open to a new life of fatherhood and conjugal paradise. But still, the engines hum.