A Prophet

08/29/2010

France / 2009 / French, Arabic & Corsican

Directed by Jacques Audiard

With Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif

Still from 'A Prophet'A nineteen year old man of Arab descent named Malik has just begun a six-year term in prison for attacking a cop. Going from the streets of Paris into prison life, which is at once regimented and anarchic, he learns that politics and cultural association take on an important, new meaning when locked up. A loner who does not readily identify with one group, Malik is nonetheless pulled into the Corsican gang who control much of the illicit activity on the inside. Threatened with death, he is to assassinate a prisoner named Reyeb, a man who by no accident happens to be Arab and who will testify against a friend of César Luciani, the gang’s cruel and volatile leader. On the pretense of seducing the victim, the panicked, quivering Malik dispatches him with a razor blade. From then on he is under Luciani’s protection, doing errands for the Corsicans, while the insular Muslim minority reject him as a traitor.

Speaking sparingly and artlessly throughout most of the film, Malik has a face placid and unreadable. But as the years go by he grows in strength and wisdom of a very dark kind. With downcast eyes he waits on the mafiosos, while privately learning their language. The aging César eventually discovers this fact and flies into a rage, but his respect for Malik grows, and he brings him closer into his confidence. In prison Malik starts to become a fully formed individual, learning to read and gaining consciousness of a sort, if only a sense for the terrible ways of the world.

Treading carefully on the turf of the Corsicans and the Muslims, both of whom regard what he does with suspicion, Malik manages the difficult task of belonging to no one but the prison system itself, answering only opportunistically to the call of its inner strata. When the time comes he has little difficulty playing on either team with which he associates. Yet he intentionally remains lowest on the food chain while readying his knife and fork, doing the dirty work of others, all the time planning his own moves in secret and with precision. He gains a valuable friend in Ryad, a Muslim who is going to be released soon. On subsequent trips outside of the prison (one-day leave periods for good behavior) Malik ostensibly does jobs for César but at the same time pursues his own projects with Ryad. When his friend is kidnapped and beaten up by a rival, Malik’s response is swift and organized in a way that would fill the Mafia with jealousy.

Looked down on by the older, established immigrants, Malik nonetheless signals the atrophy and imminent collapse of their power. And, not huddled into prayer groups with the other Arabs and the North Africans in their particular cell block, he is quite exposed, the odd man out. His closest friend in the joint is a man called The Gypsy, who is well connected but similarly unaffiliated. In an underworld that thrives on conspiracy, on invisibility, Malik uses his strong visibility as an asset. When his bosses on the inside and their contacts understand that everything he does will be obvious, traceable, and out in the open, subject to scrutiny, his potential for deceit is paradoxically redoubled. Nothing that he could do should be able to escape notice, and yet half of his activity does, mostly thanks to his man on the outside, Ryad. At first Ryad is a mentor but shortly he is following Malik’s lead, and risking life and limb for him. Whenever César and his associates discover projects that Malik has going on outside of their sphere of influence (trafficking or other moneymaking schemes, the pursuit of revenge) they punish him severely.

Still from 'A Prophet'The quiet war that the Corsicans fight to maintain their prominence is cut deeply when more than half of them are transferred to another prison. This makes communication and trade all the more difficult, and leaves the small minority remaining highly vulnerable. But César has been dictator for so long that he cannot tell when his time is more or less up. This plays out like the dreadful and long-running racial implosion in Marseilles writ large, a sort of palace intrigue that spans vertically through the parallel systems of power existing in the prison. The Corcsicans still maintain their influence over the guards, but that comes to mean less and less as the warden must consider the needs of the growing Muslim population, who cause less trouble and are lower maintenance than the Mafia.

In the outside world immigrants were once welcomed by France as the orphans of colonialism, and convenient whipping boys of successive economic downturns. But after they started demanding equality as citizens they began to transcend their traditional place and became more trouble than what they were worth to the government. A Prophet is a French film, more or less set in Paris, but has virtually no blueblooded French characters. The prison is a small world of its own, a disproportionate model for struggles of supremacy that take place outside. And while it would be a stretch to say that it is an answer to some of the current debates and policies that are changing the way Muslims live in France, it is nonetheless timely in the way it represents larger shifts in society.

Malik continues to work for César, even after he has set his sights higher and beyond, and all the while insisting to everyone but César that he is a free agent. With the dissolution of the Corsican gang, Malik moves in closer, and the old man has no choice but to rely on him. Malik never has to actively repudiate his boss; his actions describe to the audience where his loyalties are. Gradually the polarity of the two men is reversed, the balance of power shifted, but this happens almost completely off of anyone’s radar, besides that of the calculating pretender.

Unlike many films that are, by their nature, uncompromising or distasteful, A Prophet does not make it a point repulse the viewer. Rather it utilizes understatement and icy beauty to draw us in, to captivate and confound us. We never fully understand what Malik is thinking, we only see what motivates him, pushes him beyond his limitations. Harrowing interactions with his threateningly soft-spoken employer have a transformative effect on our enigmatic protagonist, articulating his suffering and prophetic dreams; we see how his imagination is broader than the cell walls, both real and figurative, that have confined him his whole life. Likewise the messy realism of the murders in which Malik engages have all the plain, brisk intimacy of a barnyard slaughter, thoroughly ruining his innocence. The man he killed lingers in his company thereafter, like memories of one’s first love, becoming the voice of Malik’s developing, nearly preternatural sense for conspiratorial prison life.

The religious connotation of the film’s title is far from ironic, as it is structured around strong allusions of a Biblical or Qur’anic nature. Since the protagonist is without religion, essentially nihilist and unshackled to the sociopolitical affiliations that divide the other prisoners, he is of a new underclass of second generation citizens who are both cut off from their roots and incompatible with French society. But after we have removed our blinders, we see that they are French society. While César and his people have allegiances and appearances to worry about, Malik is all business. In forbidden exchanges, in backstabbing and quiet, canny self-promotion, no one could be better suited. While at first he seems a cold fish, proud, pathetic, and doomed, he emerges breathing the same air as (and with deeper exhalations than) any of the criminal bosses, and goes on to partake in their spoils from right under their noses.

Still from 'A Prophet'The metaphor for the collapse of the old order is conveyed in Malik’s ascendance over those he once served. While France may be proscriptive in its injunctions against overt religious expression, there is a price too for reactive secularism. For starters, there is the disenfranchisement of those whom it either targets or ignores, for in its incompleteness there will be groups who are favored and those who suffer. France does not pretend, like many other Western nations, that religious differences are immaterial; they shrilly and at times aggressively underscore these differences – perhaps in reaction to the racism existing in everyday life there – by stamping out those qualities that set many apart from the secular and the patriotic. Malik is an example of someone who slips through the fingers of a nation that is supposed to be more civil and democratic for its favoring of security over the fundamentals of culture, and of a government working to de-populate behavior that does not conform. In the resulting coldness and lack of comfort, he manages to undergo a startling transformation. He is a prophet in the sense of signaling the rise of an unexpected type of power in modern society, exploiting rather than colluding with culture and institutions, turning their connectedness against them and forging new paths of self-interest, neither corrupt nor devoted to anything in particular.

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