Writer/director Jacques Audiard’s 2009 crime thriller “Un Prophète” (“A Prophet”), currently playing at Amherst Cinema, follows 19-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) through his six year prison sentence. He is a blank slate – illiterate and aloof, with neither family on the outside nor friends on the inside – which makes him the perfect target for exploitation by the Corsican mob, which runs the prison at every level.
The outline is familiar: innocent youth is trapped by desperate circumstances and forced to get his hands dirty, climbs the ranks of a criminal outfit and ultimately surprise everyone somehow. The difference here is that his ascent from invisibility to criminal confidence actually surprises the audience, as well.
The criminal-with-a-conscience trope has at this point been so overused and stripped of meaning that an on-screen criminal with a truly believable conscience feels like a breath of fresh air. Rahim’s Malik is a disarmingly sympathetic character, starting his prison sentence utterly vulnerable and alone. His first encounter with Corsican mob boss Luciani (Niels Arestrup) plays like a child soldier recruitment video: Malik is given the choice to murder someone or be killed himself. When he staggers breathlessly away from this encounter, mumbling “I can’t kill a man,” you know he means it.
But fear not, “Scarface” disciples – “Un Prophète” may have a conscience, but it does not dance around the thrills and spills which have made the crime movie so popular. Right off the bat, Malik’s criminal boot camp puts a razor blade in his mouth, a plastic bag over his face, and an impatient mobster’s crotch repeatedly at eye level.
All of this builds up to his first mission, whacking a prisoner named Reyeb – a witness in a mob case. The scene plays beautifully on the tension between moral ambivalence, brutal necessity, and Malik’s relative amateurishness – heightened to nauseating extremes by the intimacy of the killing itself. Add that to the bevy of haunting images packed into this film, and you have an experience which will be difficult to forget.
“Un Prophète” has earned high honors from various film institutions; the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, nine César Awards (the French Oscar equivalent) including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and a nomination for the Best Foreign Language film at the 82nd Academy Awards. It currently holds a remarkable 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film certainly earns the acclaim; Audiard delicately balances the real and the surreal, the coolness and the conscience. As Malik’s jail time progresses, his network of allies expands beyond the Corsicans, and even beyond the prison walls. Before long, he is no longer lying when he insists, “I work for myself.”
The moment in the film, about halfway in, when this becomes true – or at least when Malik seems to realize it – cues a musical montage which gives the movie some of its only out-and-out swagger. The song is “Bridging the Gap” by Nas, featuring his father, jazz musician Olu Dara. It starts slow, with a simple blues stomp and no hint of hip-hop, before blasting into Nas’ bombastic proclamation of musical independence – all while citing his father’s blues and gospel contemporaries.
It could be said that Nas’ “God’s Son” tattoo mirrors Malik’s as-of-yet unexplained role as “Prophet,” and that his musical superseding of his father mirrors Malik’s gradual turning of the tables on Luciani. But mostly, the beat is just completely off the chain, and Malik is completely on top of his game; it is the perfect musical payoff for a film filled with quiet uncertainty and alienation, not to mention a (fantastic) score that up to that point is restricted to orchestral motifs.
The movie never stops being refreshing, especially if you have grown jaded with its genre. “Un Prophète” is playing at Amherst Cinema through next Thursday; see it while you have the chance.
Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]