June Issue 2010
Crime and Punishment
A Prophet falls in the same genre as the great classic, The Godfather. It has all the ingredients of a great gangster thriller: the nefarious mob, bloodshed and suspense. But director Jacques Audiard surpasses expectation with an authenticity that cannot be matched. Setting his movie in a French prison, Audiard stays true to the usual charge levied against punitive institutions – it turns inmates into hardened criminals – while he captures the inner dynamics of a subculture within French jails with great precision and displays a haunting understanding of the hierarchy that prevails within.
The young French actor Tahar Rahim got his first break in A Prophet playing Malik el Djebena, a North African inmate. The plot revolves around this first-time convict who learns the tricks of the trade and does what he has to do to ultimately emerge at the top of the food chain. This is not your usual tale of bravery and courage as one is forced to set aside urges to box characters in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories. Setting the moral compass aside, you discover the depth in A Prophet that won the film the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2009. Rave reviews also came with international acclaim as A Prophet won a BAFTA. This is not just any movie you settle down with at the end of a busy day with a bowl of popcorn. It encompasses an intense plot that draws audiences into a world of drugs, sexual exploitation and gruesome violence – difficult to digest for the faint-hearted. Audiard employed real ex-inmates as background actors and advisers to capture the true reality of French jails. Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain went into the notorious French jails himself to research this film.
The movie explores a world where it’s each man for himself. Darwin’s survival of the fittest rings true in these jails where the kingpin Luciani rules the roost with his Corsican hoodlums. They bribe, steal, kill and operate businesses all under the watchful eyes of the police. Audiences feel immediate sympathy for the illiterate and victimised Malik who is serving a six-year sentence for violence against the cops. Malik enters the prison quiet and detached, not wanting to ally himself with any group, but the harsh realities of prison life forces him to shed his naïve approach. The courtyard scene accurately portrays the workings of the prison, as each group owns a corner. The Cesar of the Corsicans, played by Niels Arestrup, takes the young inmate under his wing to train him for menial tasks and ultimately murder, which gains Malik admittance into Luciani’s group. Malik is immediately outcast by the Muslims and remains estranged amongst the Corsicans, being the only Arab amongst ‘all whites.’ Although he is forced to obey Luciani he is eerily detached from the group, and ultimately starts running his own drug trade when allowed short stints outside the jail for Luciani’s work.
With an Arab as the hero, Audiard in his own words has defied French audiences’ ideas of heroes and icons.
Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.