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A PROPHET (UN PROPHETE) (director/writer: Jacques Audiard; screenwriters: Thomas Bidegain/based on an idea by Abdel Raouf Dafri and an original script by Mr. Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit; cinematographer: Stéphane Fontaine; editor: Juliette Welfling; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Tahar Rahim (Malik El Djebena), Niels Arestrup (César Luciani), Adel Bencherif (Ryad), Reda Kateb (Jordi le Gitan), Hichem Yacoubi (Reyeb), Jean-Philippe Ricci (Vettorri), Slimane Dazi (Lattrache), Pierre Leccia (Sampierro); Runtime: 149; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Martine Cassinelli; Sony Pictures Classics; 2009-France-in French, Corsican and Arabic with English subtitles)
“Grim and violent prison film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped”/”Read My Lips”/”Venus Beauty Institute”) directs this grim and violent prison film, that reminds one of the Hollywood 1930’s prison films that engagingly showed how to work your way up in the underworld. It follows the narrative of many of the modern Hollywood over-the-top gangster flicks–except it takes a few different turns, has a morbid twisted morality at play, and is a lot darker and more graphically gory than most Hollywood gangster films. It’s based on an idea by Abdel Raouf Dafri and from a gritty screenplay by Dafri, Thomas Bidegain and Nicolas Peufaillit.

The illiterate, frightened but acting with bravado, 19-year-old part Arab part Corsican Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), whose folks abandoned him, is sentenced to six years prison time for an undisclosed minor non-violent crime (a good lawyer instead of his court appointed one would have probably gotten him a reduced sentence). The inexperienced loner Malik has no protection in prison and has his sneakers taken by a tough prisoner. Hardened life-sentenced elderly Corsican crime boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) rules the prison with his gang and with aid from outside influences over the prison is kept in power. In order for Malik to live and get prison protection Cesar tells him he must kill the Arab prisoner Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), as he is the only one the Corsicans know who can get close enough to the prisoner who is soon going to trial and is expected to be transferred to another prison. Malik, a survivalist, sees no choice but to comply and is then made Cesar’s lackey porter after slitting Reyeb’s throat with a razor he hid in his mouth. Running errands for Cesar in the prison, Malik’s allowed after three years a day leave in a release program. During this time Malik carries out a number of assorted outside criminal missions for Cesar, receiving the details of his mission from Cesar’s outside gang members.

Malik seemingly has no choice but to hang with the Corsicans, who openly call him a “dirty Arab.” But he learns quickly and smartens up with his jail education (even learning how to write and read) to make criminal plans of his own with a paroled opportunistic Arab prisoner (Adel Bencherif) to sell drugs in Paris. The enterprising Malik sees that crime could be very profitable and aims to show the Corsicans that he can outsmart them in their own games if he has to.

The film, though powerful in showing how unsafe the world can be, is somewhat convoluted in its prison logic, is too bleak to be entertaining and too long to hold one’s complete attention. But it has great acting by its unlovable leads and gives off a realistic hard-edged mood that reflects the current antagonistic mood between the growing Arab population in France and some of the native Frenchmen who see them as a threat to their way of life. What it has to say paints a lyrical pessimistic picture of France’s future as far as racial harmony and its violent materialistic society, which may be true or not–but it certainly resonates here as a major problem and something to ponder.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”