26 February 2010

Review: "Un Prophète"

Un Prophète is a French crime drama directed by Jacques Audiard. Audiard is not well known outside of French (at least not by me), though he has won César Awards for Best First Film for Regarde les hommes tombés (See How They Fall, 1994) and Best Film for De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005). Un Prophète has been chosen as France's official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The film was also nominated at the 2010 Golden Globe Awards in the same category, where it lost to the German film The White Ribbon. It recently won a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language. The idea for the film stems from Audiard screening his César-winning film to a prison cinema club. The film focuses on racial relations within the prison, dealing with a lot of Arabophobia. Un Prophète stars Tahar Rahim as a newly incarcerated young man and Niels Arestrup (who may look familiar from his role in The Bourne Ultimatum) as a Corsican crime boss. The film has an uneasy sense of realism, and with terrific acting from the whole cast Un Prophète is an incredibly compelling and engrossing film.

Malik El Djebena (Rahim) is nineteen and has been sentenced to six years in prison for violence against a police officer. Malik denies this, and it would be easy to believe that he was only found guilty because of his race. Though, in France you are guilty until proven innocent. Malik has North African ancestry but is estranged from the Muslim community. He is illiterate and has been offered protection by Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), the kingpin of the ruling Corsican gang. Malik is expected to do what Luciani asks, including killing another inmate in the film's most violent and disturbing scene. This event does have one positive consequence; it prompts Malik to begin going to classes in the prison. He rises up in the gang, though many within the Corsican gang only see him as a leech. Luciani has so much power and control in the prison and this begins to benefit Malik. Malik starts to receive day passes, and while he is on the outside he performs tasks for Luciani and gets paid for it. With the help of a recently released inmate, Ryad (Adel Bencherif), Malik realizes that he can benefit from Luciani's trust.

Un Prophète is the type of film that seems to be filmed without a filter. The images appear on screen in a rough and often too-realistic manner. It reminded me of the film Down to the Bone (2005) which starred Vera Farmiga. The aforementioned violent scene is also reminiscent of another film, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol 1. Not to be outdone, I also see parallels to another recent French film, Entre les Murs. The two films give realistic looks at two very racially diverse communities and how they interact within the confines of four walls. Overall I quite enjoyed the film and found myself emotionally invested in Malik's future, though the film was not without its faults. The pacing was sometimes awkward and the film felt a little too long at 150 minutes. The acting was superb and the director paid obvious attention to important details. Having lived in France I have seen the negative effects of Arabophobia and Islamophobia, and I think that it is an important piece of filmmaking that does fulfill Audiard's goal of "creating icons, images for people who don't have images, Arabs in France."

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

EDIT Un Prophète has won just won César awards for Best Film, Director, Actor (Rahim), Supporting Actor (Arestrup), Cinematography, and Original Writing, among their nine awards.

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