Un Prophète (A Prophet) (2009)

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb

Directed by: Jacques Audiard

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Malik (Tahar Rahim) and prison mob boss Luciani (Niels Arestrup) in Un Prophete

When 19-year-old Arab delinquent Malik (Tahar Rahim) is sent to prison, he finds himself faced with a stark choice. Either he must kill he fellow Muslim inmate Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) at the behest of the Corsican Mafia who rule the joint, or they will kill him.

Malik chooses to kill Reyeb, thus falling under the protection of the Corsicans and their world-weary boss Luciani (Niels Arestrup), and alienating himself from his ‘brother' Muslim prisoners.

During his six year sentence we see Malik transformed from a frightened, illiterate youth to a savvy inside wheeler-dealer, who skivvies without complaint for the Corsicans while running his own profitable drug dealing business – and all the time plotting revenge on the man who set him on this grim trajectory: Luciani.

Prepare yourselves, folks, for an intense, gritty and at times unpleasant cinematic experience. Like Malik, we are confined within the walls of this soul-sapping prison (Cell Block H this ain't) for almost the entire (not insignificant) length of the film, and we too breathe a huge gulp of fresh air on the two leave days he gets to step outside the institution walls.

Tahar Rahim as A Prophet

Yet it's these scenes, when Malik leans his head from a car window to watch the world go by, or paddles knee-deep into the sea, alone, which make us feel justified in rooting for this dark character, who is violent not by nature but by enforced choice, haunted by the past and with no foreseeable happy future, as the final moments of the film masterfully convey.

Barely off the screen at all, young, little-known actor Tahar Rahim gives an amazing performance as Malik, his scarred face speaking volumes without saying a word, and the transition he effects from insecure juvenile offender to cock of the walk is remarkable.

The rich, multi-lingual script reflects the multi-faceted layering of the plot, which combines far-reaching questions of faith and religion, racism and racial loyalty with the classic gangster tropes of drug smuggling, rival gang vengeance and the old mob boss giving away to the fresh young blood and the jailhouse staples of bent screws and endemic corruption, the No Escape/Escape from New York idea that the prisoners inhabit a world of their own with no rules to restrain them.

The cinematography is top notch, unobtrusive yet reflective of the turmoil of the prison and the psyche of our central protagonist, and the sparing use of music makes the stand-out tracks that are used all the more effective.

The obvious point of comparison is with French gangster epic Mesrine, but that's just being lazy really, for Malik's harsh, grimy world co-exists a million miles away from the celebrated career criminal's media saturated exploits. Un Prophète is not such a likeable film, but it's equally uncompromising and utterly compelling. If you're a fan of The Long Good Friday, Scarface or The Shawshank Redemption, it's unmissable.

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