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Review: Un Prophète – A Prophet (2009)

Director: Jacques Audiard | 150 minutes | , , | Actors: , , , Reda Kateb, , , Jean-Emmanuel Pagni, , , , , , ,

Do movies ever take too long? That certainly does not apply to ‘Un prophète’. Despite the respectable length of 150 minutes, not a minute is too long. The strong story, the tension and the magnificent images grab you and immerse you. This is another film that is a masterly mixture of raw reality and almost poetic visual language.

‘Un prophète’ won the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival 2009. Malik Al Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is nineteen and has to go to prison. He has been given six years and has to sit between the real tough guys. They are tough criminals who are internally organized in gangs. They are in a reign of terror and also constantly compete with each other for supremacy. Malik is illiterate and is soon put under life-threatening pressure by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), leader of a Corsican gang: he is ordered to murder a fellow prisoner. Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) threatens to provide information about the gang during a trial. The message is hard and clear: kill or be killed.

Cesar has a lot of influence within the prison system: guards are sometimes corrupt or cooperate under great pressure, because these dangerous criminals are also released once. When Malik wants to inform the prison management, he soon realizes that – for whatever reason – he should not expect any help there. He is therefore completely on his own and will have to ‘deliver’. Survival is simply eating or being eaten. Malik proves himself and thus commands respect. He is one of them, a member of the system and can no longer escape them. Yet for the Corsicans he remains the Arab who can never be one of them. He is allowed to do errands for them, do dirty jobs, but remains a useful outsider who is sacrificed like that when he is no longer needed. He is a traitor to the large population of Arab fellow prisoners, because he is a sidekick to the Corsicans. Malik has no other choice than to play the game and realizes that he can only survive through cunning, resistance or refusal is tantamount to ending his life by himself. He provides services again and again and thus climbs up in the organization. He slyly tries to form his own network.

Malik is not yet eligible for leave, but this too can be ‘arranged’ by Luciani within the system. However, that only means new assignments for Malik. Due to his stay in prison and the education he has followed there, he is increasingly aware that he is caught in a spiral of violence from which he must – in any case – escape.

‘Un prophète’ largely takes place within the prison walls. The way life is portrayed there is oppressive and impressive. In an environment that is so tough, violence – verbal, psychological and physical – is commonplace. This has been incorporated into the film story and portrayed in an unmistakable way, with the mutual sexual relationships and additional prostitution. These images are sometimes poignant, but never disturbing. It is simply a given in the prevailing social order there. Life in prison, the rituals, the procedures, the repression, the tensions, the racial contradictions: the film shows it all and convincingly.

Tarim Rahim acts masterfully, his charisma is grand. Niels Arestrup convincingly plays the role of the Corsican gang leader, comparable to the portrayal of Brando in ‘The Godfather’. The total staging is overwhelmingly realistic, the editing perfect while the soundtrack adds that little bit extra to make ‘Un prophète’ a top-class film. Brilliant and exciting for the full 150 minutes!

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