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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 08.31.09] France movie review drama crime

Year: 2009
Directors: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain & Abdel Raouf Dafri & Nicolas Peufaillit
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: The Crystal Ferret
Rating: 7 out of 10

“A young Arab man is sent to a French prison where he becomes a mafia kingpin.” That’s how “Un Prophète” is summed up on IMDB. It sounds like some badly written hip-hop music video, fully laden with muscles, drugs, guns and big shaking booties at the end. Forget all that.

Oh yes, there are elements in the whole linking to such a restrictive description, the movie poster along with the rest of the promotional marketing looks like a 50-Cent CD cover. Yes the script CAN (and most unfortunately WILL) be seen as a glorification of crime, drugs, violence, or whatever. But behind this unappealing fist contact with Jacques Audiard’s 6th movie, lies a truly poetic piece of Art, an initiatic fairytale of coming of age.

Let’s begin with this review as with any fairy tale: Once upon a time …

The World is black.
Through the mind’s eye of Malik EL djebena (Tahar Rahim), the first thing with see is a crushing darkness. His immediate surroundings are only perspiring dimly, faraway and dreamlike. Things get clearer as the camera show us the world outside our hero’s mind. Clearer yes, but not a notch brighter: bars, cops, screams, curses, his worn-off lawyer. Malik El Djebena is going to jail for 6 years. We will never know why. Young, boyish looking, illiterate, without any family or relatives, without even someone to call a friend, he is thrown in a maelstrom of violence, intricate power plays, corruption and despair. Soon singled out as some fresh meat for the grinder, he’s approached by a party of Corsican inmates. Bullied into obedience by this unofficial hierarchy, he will do their dirty jobs or die. During six years, we will see evolve and better himself until the concrete womb of the jail will release him, reborn as a Man.

How can this be a fairytale? It’s all credit to the talent of the production and direction teams. Starting as a gritty documentary, soon the fantastic and symbolic elements gets so cleverly entwined into the story we end up watching a visual poem. In the beginning, our hero is a perfect human picture of the Broken Column: alone, his body scarred, unable to read or write he will be reshaped into something greater. The movie is divided in chapters, each and every one a step on the psychological rebuild of the hero. We are deeply in the time honored tradition of the Bildungsroman.

There’s enough and brilliantly served symbolism in this movie to fill up a book of its own so I won’t dwell much into it today. I shall just talk about the emerged part of this iceberg of meaning: the father figure. In perfect Freudian tradition Malik will have a surrogate father imposed on him in the character of César (played by Niels Arestrup), the leader of the Corsicans. Perfectly characterized by his name, he will be for Malik a mentor, a Kaiser, helping him on the road of greatness until discarded, his task done. I can only emphasize on how touching and inspiring is the relation between Malik and César, all thanks to the wonderful job done by the actors. Things are above as they are below; we can without much effort compare this father/son development with the director’s own life, trying to get a name of his own in the shadow of his own father. For those not acquainted with Jacques Audiard work, all his movies deals with the father/son relationship and how to be a man on his own. “Un prophète” is finally the landmark stating there are now two Audiard in the French pantheon of cinema.

That’s a lot of talking about fathers, but what of the motherly figure? Well she’s so present it’s overwhelming. She’s big, she’s voracious and she’s made of stone and bars. Behold mother-jail, protecting her child inside her cement bowels, caring for him, nesting him. All the inmates live trough her, shielded from the outside world. Our hero lives and feels the world trough her deforming prism, only able to apprehend the true nature of things after, with the help of César, decoding and transcribing her lessons. And there, caught on film we have the miracle of human psyche : External stimuli wired by the senses (mother symbol) through the intellect (father figure) leading to comprehension and action. Managing to get that done so simply and elegantly truly is a wonder.

After such praise, you are probably asking yourselves “why only 7 out of 10?” Two major things: first there are some unnecessary lengths, the movie is running a nice 2H35, in my opinion it could have done as well with only 2h15. Second, like I said in the start there will be people to see it at the first and basic level of understanding: As a glorification of crime. And that’s a shame.

That’s it, what are you doing still reading me? Go see it!

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Alex Billington (12 years ago) Reply

I hate to be that guy who has to bring up your 7 out of 10 rating again, but it really doesn't fit with your review. I'm not normally the guy to do this, but I saw it and LOVED the movie. And really, Un Prophete deserves WAY better than that. You even said it yourself by calling it a "visual poem" and "truly poetic piece of Art, an initiatic fairytale of coming of age."

I understand what you're saying at the end about those two issues. But surely a longer running time isn't enough to take THAT much off of it. And secondly, just because others don't have the ability to see it for what it is - a beautiful bit of cinema, even if it does glorify drugs and everything else - doesn't mean YOU have to give it a lower score just for that.

I really hope you reconsider the rating you gave it, not only because of what I perceive is an immense appreciation for the film in your review, but because this wonderful film needs as much praise as it can get. It's an absolutely phenomenal feature and I hope with positive reviews (not 7/10's) more people will take an interested in it.


ian face (12 years ago) Reply

i cant wait to see this movie! i loved the beat that my heart skipped and especially read my lips so im psyched.

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