Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jacques Audiard

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material)

Running Time: 2:35

Release Date: 2/26/10 (limited); 3/5/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 6, 2010

French prisons have a hell of a reputation. Overcrowding, terrible conditions, and an overall miserable experience for inmates are just some of them, and while the concerns of A Prophet (Un Prophète) are not to specifically indict the system for these reasons, it is an often-times harrowing look at how all of these and more come together to form corruption and how that can turn a petty criminal into a professional one, even while he's inside prison walls.

The concept of institutionalization in inmates is not a new one, but the film's argument is that, when the institution overlooks preferential treatment for connected prisoners, breaches of rules in favor of an appearance of stability (chaos working its best to form a semblance of order), and internal crimes as serious as murder, the effect causes more harm than it prevents.

At the heart of this problem is Malik (Tahar Rahim), a kid who has had a life in and out of juvenile hall and now finds himself an adult ready to spend six years of the hardest kind of time in prison. As played by Rahim, he is a blank slate. This is right. We don't know what types of crimes landed him in juvie in the past, and we have no idea what he did this time around. Given his sentence, we suppose it wasn't too terrible a crime, but, given his past, the judge wasn't lenient in the slightest. It doesn't matter what he has done; the film is all about what he will do and become.

The film's view of prison is unwavering in the brutality of both the environment and the candor with which it is presented. Here, Malik finds out quickly that César (Niels Arestrup), leader of a gang of Corsicans in and out of jail, is a man it's best not to know but, as he essentially runs the prison, he's the only guy there you need to know.

César offers Malik protection, and as is often the case with people who propose such a gesture, the only man Malik needs protection from is César. He has free reign, walking with impunity wherever he wants to go. When he arrives at a locked gate, the guards buzz him in without question. If César wants to be somewhere, he will be there whenever he requires.

Arestrup is unnerving in the role. Anywhere else, he would appear a harmless older man—someone you would walk by without a second glance but, if you did catch one, you would hope the look wasn't returned. He embodies a sense of power, not from within himself, but from his ability to control others. César doesn't ask, and people around him do not ask questions when told to do something. They simply do it, and if done right, there will be no consequences because César ordered it.

For the privilege of protection, Malik must kill a fellow inmate (Hichem Yacoubi), a man inside under protective custody before he testifies in court. Our first and only necessary glimpse into the extent of corruption within the institution comes when Malik has second thoughts. After all, this is murder, and the very cruel reality of the possibility of the act comes home to him as he practices hiding a razor blade in his mouth. Bloodied from preparation and despondent at the thought of what he must do, he calls for the warden. The warden obliges an audience but is accompanied by one of the César's thugs, both of whom remind the kid without room for debate that he will do this. He does in a sudden, vicious, and horrifying scene.

The tide turns for Malik, and he's presented with a choice. A fellow inmate Ryad (Adel Bencherif) begins to refresh him on Arabic and teach him Corsican. This could be rehabilitation, but instead, Malik uses it to his advantage, overhearing César's discussions with his men without their knowledge and positioning himself as a point of contact with the other Arabs in the jail, who have their own ward and potential for holding sway inside. César knows this and is scared; his fear is translated into using the guards to keep his possible opponents down.

Director Jacques Audiard (who also co-wrote the script) is less interested in condemning the system outright and instead focuses on these power plays. The censure comes from the observation.

Malik indeed becomes institutionalized, as we see when he eventually serves enough time to be considered for days out. At an airport, on his way to discuss business on César's behalf, while being searched by security, he instinctively sticks out his tongue. It's a startling moment, because at this point, we have come to realize what this habit means and from where it comes. It's from a place where an old man orders illegal actions while being punished for others.

The film fascinates in watching César slowly wither and Malik, who insists that he works for himself (a statement we constantly perceive as ironic until he proves it), begin to prosper, even if it's at the expense of those around him. The ultimate denunciation A Prophet has to make is that Malik learns to be a criminal from the best teacher at the best school to study such things.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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