A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard

A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard

A Prophet’s powerful contemporary spin on the conventions of crime films and prison dramas gives it resonance well beyond those limited horizons, argues Tom Jennings

A New World Oracle. Film review – Tom Jennings
French director Jacques Audiard has developed a distinctive focus on the ambivalent motivations of male characters trapped in cycles of deceit, violence and all-round moral turpitude – from A Self-Made Hero’s (1996) fake Resistance hero, through Read My Lips’ (2001) petty criminal aiding a downtrodden office worker’s revenge on her corrupt bosses, to a property scam thug in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) seeking escape from mundane malevolence through classical musicianship. Now, polishing a screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri – who also wrote Jean-Francois Richet’s Mesrine (reviewed in Freedom, 26th September 2009) – his new film represents the more audacious ambition to revise the grandiose gangster saga formulas of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Scarface. So, although the cinematic reference points remain classic Hollywood film noir melodrama – twisted through 1950s/60s French variations (by Dassin, Clouzot, Melville, et al) specifying rich social milieux rather than bloated tragic antimartyrs – A Prophet heralds Audiard’s concept of a new prototype of criminality.
We begin with Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) – an illiterate teenager of North African descent reared in state institutions – graduating from homeless delinquency to a six-stretch for assaulting a policeman (probably the “his head attacked my truncheon” variety). With no friends, family, resources or knowledge – and, crucially, no malicious streak or particular axe to grind (beyond a short temper when messed with) – his sensible strategy to keep his head down, surviving day to day, collapses immediately. Refusing a mid-level gangster’s sexual proposition, he is press-ganged into executing him by the rival Corsicans. This horrific initiation into the service of the jail’s head mafioso Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) yields diligent adaptation to dogsbody status, despised as a ‘dirty Arab’ but increasingly relied on by his patrons. Assimilating the first, most brutal lesson – whose victim thereafter haunts his dreams – Malik starts to educate himself, in reading and writing but also the minutiae of power and domination in the shifting sands of influence and allegiance among cons and screws.
Gradually grasping the bigger picture of the dynamics of the drugs trade sustaining the illicit enterprise, Malik imperceptibly senses his own potential agency. Observing his friend Ryad’s (Adel Bencherif) difficulties upon release encourages a perceptual shift from survival now to more long term. Then, entrusted with increasingly sensitive tasks during day release (supposedly, and ironically, for ‘job-training’), he realises that the traditional fixed hierarchies and protocols of organised crime are crumbling in betrayal and acrimony – unable to adjust to social, economic and demographic change. Meanwhile his lack of fixed identity and ambiguous tribal affiliations, not to mention new skills of mediation and diplomacy, leave him well-placed to scheme and network in building his own little empire, both in jail and outside – where, it turns out, similar rules appear to apply. Moreover, though now capable of bypassing conscience to channel post-traumatic stress in strategic viciousness, he remains basically decent and honest – with, nonetheless, a pragmatic appreciation of a world that is decisively neither.
Audiard’s primary script-doctoring was to render Malik a virtual ‘blank slate’ – surely inured during an abject upbringing to alienation from impersonal official authority, but certainly no clichéd hardened malcontent predisposed to aggression. At a stroke, this sidesteps Hollywood’s enduring default cod-psychology of criminality – individual character flaws magnifying into social psychosis – reinforced by casting a first-time actor with no star charisma to overdetermine character. Any disbelief in such innocence is then suspended by keeping the camera close, allowing viewers to encounter with his fresh, agonised eyes successive levels of humiliation and degradation – with focus and perspective sharply narrowed to emphasise restricted fields of action and understanding. His rites of passage subsequently manifest through markers of identity ascribed by others – object of control and condescension for criminal justice and law enforcement, or contempt from the Corsicans as a Muslim – until apparently slavish compliance with their peremptory dominance gives room to manoeuvre, ultimately summoning positive capabilities they can’t even recognise.
These structural and stylistic choices avoid conventional prison drama archetypes and stereotypes – the mawkish redemption of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or The Green Mile (1999) being no more an option than the sociological naturalism of Carandiru’s (2003) Brazilian hellhole or the balancing of convict factions against trends in institutional policy in the American TV series Oz (1997-2003). Likewise, the pretensions of mobster revisionisms like The Sopranos (1999-2007), American Gangster (2007) or Gomorrah (2008) – matching the evolutions of organised crime, modern capitalism and class stratification – rather miss the point here. Audiard’s more fundamental insight is how disciplinary power in our emerging ‘carceral society’ of surveillance and biocontrol shapes conduct – where the ‘free’ citizenry willingly submit to the enclosure of physical and imaginative space for the sake of illusory security. So Malik’s learning from experience inside equip him admirably outside. He transcends the outmoded paternalism of the Corsicans – reliant on unearned privilege rooted in static ethnic and cultural heritage – whereas mobile resistance to prevailing discourses claiming to define him facilitates his entrepreneurial success while reproducing the structure of exploitation within which it thrives.
The film’s most general allusion, then, is to any careers, respectable or outlaw, specialising in manipulation – including, say, in politics, commerce or management – which have historically remained the preserve of the enlightened middle-classes who instinctively believe in their ‘natural rights’ in these fields. Audiard’s general dictum that “Cinema for me only has meaning when it has a relationship with what I see on the street” led to this particular narrative vehicle but, perhaps predictably, the critics preferred misreadings in terms of orthodox liberal critiques of French prisons, or as some kind of exotic multicultural ‘social issue’ parable. But A Prophet’s blatantly cinematic construction and complete lack of documentary realism, not to mention its concentration on practical power relations and tactical alliances at the expense of any kind of essentialism, make the director’s exasperated refusal of such positions entirely plausible. It seems that the intelligentsia have trouble stomaching a story in which those among the excluded sections of society are just as capable, given propitious circumstances, of mobilising higher cognitive capacities in their own interests – and without necessarily needing to dehumanise anyone else in the process.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 6, March 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk