French Film Collection(Film 16) A PROPHET (2009)

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Filmmakers love a good prison. No, scrub that, filmmakers adore a bad prison. You can see why. For writers and directors, the volatile jail is a ready-made theatre, its prisoners and guards with their various conflicts and loyalties all perfect players for a drama that, if it tries hard enough, can reflect life on the outside too.

For French director Jacques Audiard (‘A Self-Made Hero’, ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’), a master of the old-school French thriller – ie thrilling and meaningful – his fifth film offers the chance to pull off both a state-of-nation primal scream and a terrific crime flick. He gives us Malik (Tahar Rahim), a French-Arab convict who enters a concrete-and-steel hell to serve a sentence of six years (so we know he can’t have done anything too dreadful). He tries to keep his head down, but this isn’t that sort of place. The ruling bully boys are the Corsican inmates, led by ageing but vicious César (Niels Arestrup), who forces Malik to kill another inmate in a very successful scene that’s one of the most claustrophobic and disturbing episodes I’ve seen in a long while. From here, Malik is César’s vassal, committed to working for him on the inside and, later, using a series of day-release excursions to represent his criminal interests on the outside.

But Malik is a clever individualist – a survivalist even – and at the same time that he learns to read and write, he exploits a friendship with another French-Arab prisoner, now released, to pursue his own drug deals and quietly invest in a power base within the jail. This is a world where partnerships are formed only for a reason, loyalties are fluid, friends barely exist at all. Politically, it’s a cynical film. Hope is absent.

Whether, though, it says anything meaningful about France, I’m not so sure. Malik is an extreme character, so his experience doesn’t reflect the French-Arab dilemma as a whole, even if the point is made about the number of immigrants in French jails and how being sent to prison for a minor offence can snowball into something else entirely. Audiard suggests that being an underdog – socially, racially, economically – in an unfriendly society can lead to desocialisation and anti-social behaviour. But Malik’s story is so wild that it obscures such ideas.

That said, it’s testament to Audiard’s skill at plunging us headfirst into a vicious parallel world that we mostly believe the film’s twisted logic and rituals. Also, his presentation of violence as a profit-and-loss account is effective and mature: while Malik’s initial murder may get him far, we witness nightly visions of his victim coming back to his cell to haunt him. But there are several bite-your-tongue moments. The film is realist in style and mood, but for every five spot-on observations, there is one flight of wild fancy. I’ve seen the film twice and still find baffling an episode in which Malik predicts that a deer will hit a car, thereby suggesting he is a prophet.

But the sheer force of Audiard’s direction can support such enigmas. It forces you, bullies you, persuades you to love his filmmaking style – even if not always to understand his motives.

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