This film was billed by many as the speciality at Cannes – where it got its worldwide premiere and won the Grand Prize of the Jur. The ‘introducer’ on the the viewing I saw explained how, he felt, it was the best prison drama ever and the LFF programme explained how it superseded Mesrine and Public Enemies in depth, realism and quality. No doubt then, that this screening was sponsored by Sight and Sound. I had few expectations – only read the info in magazines and publications and yet, it turned out to be the best film I have seen at the festival – possibly the best film of the year itself!
What I reckon …
The Prophet the film refers to is Mohammad, peace be with you, of Islam. The central character we are introduced to is Malik El Djebena, an Arab who, as established in the first five minutes, has no religious connections really. Either way, it is not long in that we realise that his quiet demeanor and calmness is inevitably abused by prisoners around him and, he is singled out and abused as gangs do not initially accept him – he does not attend services with the Muslims and is not accepted by them, and the Corsicans see him as a ‘dirty Arab’ and is excluded as he should be with the Muslims. But, due to an advance by a different prisoner – Ryad – Djebena is approached by the Corsican gang – led by César – and is told he must make friends with this prisoner – in fact, he must accept his advances and then kill him. This all happens quite quick and Djebena’s is fearful of completing the crime – in fact, the first thing he does (what I was thinking he should do) is tell the warden and guards. Obviously, the guards are on César’s payroll and we see an exceptionally difficult-to-watch scene as he is suffocated by a bag. I had my hand to my mouth in horror – he was in such a difficult position and thus is forced to train himself to kill this prisoner. He learns to hold a razor blade in his mouth so he can sneak it into the cell with him to kill him (the sequences as he fails to quickly produce the blade from his mouth make incredibly difficulty viewing). I won’t go on much more with the plot, suffice to say, we see his six years in prison and how, through the prison system, he becomes an intelligent and impressive criminal – much moreso than how he was upon his initial entrance.
We are constantly reminded on the racism and abuse suffered by prisoners in French prisons. Specifically how Djebena has difficulty being fully accepted by every group in the prison – whether it be Muslim, Arab, Corsican or Italian. The whole film is rooted in realism and has a documentary feel to it – something that the scriptwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri who was at the screening mentioned at the start. Though documentarian in style, the film tries a broad range of camerawork expressing a range of facets that push it away from being exclusively documetary in influence. We often see sections in a fish-eye pespective … as if a torch is barely lighting up what Djebena can see. We also see the murderered Ryed appear throughout the film at different points- haunting Djebena. In some striking scenes Ryed spins around chanting ‘Allah’, while in another we see him smoking and the smoke exhaling from the neck wound Djebena made to kill him. These slightly surreal qualities give this film a more deep quality – as it jars with the realism outside of these sequences. They are not explicit dreams – but clearly are just that. Imagination and dreams reflected on screen.
An incedible parrallel to this film is, stranegly enough, Goodfellas as it charts a character who cannot be fully accepted into the gangs (Hill was half-Irish and could never join Cicero’s Italian Mafia) but, instead, learns from his leaders – eventually becoming more powerful than the leader who trained them. César constantly reminds Djebena of how it is Djebena who needs César, opposed to the other way around. Cicero (Sorvino) in Goodfella’s never explicitly stated his authority over Hill (Liotta) in the same way – but towards the end of both films both Hill/Djebena double cross their leader – in both cases dealing and taking drugs and then dealing them behind their leaders back. I do remember a specific point in Un Prophète whereby I was sure of a specific shot that evoked Goodfellas but, alas, I cannot remember it.
To close, Un Prophète shows us a version of life in prison that is real and shows how criminals – and the choice to become a criminal, is a reality. Djebena gets to a position whereby he can watch TV, pay for prostitutes in his cell, have a DVD player and even set up his own business from the inside of a jail. He gets his one-day leave but uses these opportunities to gain contacts. Obviously the prisons are not exclusively at fault, but it is clear that the corrupt guards on the lower ranks destroy any hope of rehabilitiation prisoners have – and, in fact, change priosners to become more dangerous and become deeper into the underworld. It is a film about education primarily, but not the positive life-affirming education we might expect. An incredible film that is worth hunting down at the earliest opportunity.
Finally got around to seeing it at a preview at the hmvCurzon (lovely modern blue seats).
Firstly you're damn right, it's a great prison dream with elements of realism and fantasy which intermingle well as Malik is pulled into a the horribly real criminal world. I felt it was well paced and there was a sense of anticipation as the events conspired either within or outside of Maliks control to develop him from petty thug to kingpin. He has these very complex relationships because people rarely trust or like him but his care less/risk taking/improvisational attitude results in more wins than losses.
It did feel a little long but made good use of montage with modern music to drag the viewer (and Mailk) into the rules of prison life. As he learnt about the community, so did we and there was limited need for cliche bar the Dons slicked back white hair. I have to confess I didn't find the razor blade or carrier bag too hard to stomach, they both felt quite brief and it was the implied stuff like the spoon in the eye and murder which made me a little squeamish. The varied array of characters and occasional splashes of black humour reminded me of Carandiru.
All in all a tough but engaging watch with a strangely likeable central character and some unpleasant truths about prison life. Wouldn't have broken into my Top Ten of 2009 though…
Nice writeup, it's funny though how you and I have seemingly come to different conclusions about the system; this is the beauty of film, especially well made films, which allow for different readings depending on the viewer. It is further testament to the Audiard's talent. You say that the corrupt system forces individuals further into the underworld, whereas I think that compared to most prison films, this actually shows the possibilities of rehabilitation. Ryad could have rehabilitated, he got a job fine, just didn't like it. Plus Malik didn't stay a day over his sentance and although he had to go through the psychological trauma of killing, everything he did was a necessity to survive his six years sentance. At which point he was set free, gained a family, had learnt to read, write, speak additional languages, had a firm grasp on economics and a great self belief. None of this he had before his sentance. See my blog for my full writeup – Destroy apathy