“Film of the year“, says one newspaper’s quote at the top of the praise-plastered posters for Un Prophete, or A Prophet. It’s released next Friday, January 22. Can it be the film of the year yet? I suspect the critic was hailing the film as such after seeing it at a festival last year. Certainly, Sight & Sound‘s collected critics named Un Prophete as their film of 2009. For those of us who don’t attend festivals, however, it’s going to have to be film of 2010, and it has a long way to go. Mind you, I’ve seen it now, and it is astonishingly good. Film of the month, for sure.
It’s the French prison movie. Directed by Jacques Audiard, who made The Beat That My Heart Skipped, it is not strictly a prison movie, rather a tale of manhood (or “self-education” to use Audiard’s words), forced upon a young offender who spends six years in jail. It is also a film about ethnic tribalism, in this case, to reduce it down: Arabs versus Corsicans, the main groups in this French clink, with the Muslim contingent growing all the time. Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) hopes to keep himself to himself and his nose clean, but is sucked into the prison’s subculture of racial violence in a truly shocking first-act incident that will cause even the most immunised to wince and instinctively cover their eyes when it happens. Needless to say, we see an immediate change in Malik and over the six years that unfold over the film’s two and a half hours, it’s not just facial hair that marks out the passage of time and the maturing of a young man. Audiard is fascinated by the rituals and routines of prison life, and the way that men are when left with other men; he’s also adept at running a workable thriller element into a more meditative, even impressionistic whole – when Malik eventually earns 12-hour passes for good behaviour, you’ll be amazed at what he gets up to!
All hail Niels Aristrup, who was in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and plays the banged-up Corsican Godfather Cesar Luciani with the perfect blend of Genial Harry Grout and Frank Booth (although he looks disconcertingly like Anthony Worrall Thompson). The actual cons who take on roles as extras in the film – and the seemingly authentic setting – root the occasional esoteric touches and fantasy elements in cold, hard reality. There are rare moments of beauty in this prison, as there were in Steve McQueen’s Maze in Hunger (both, interestingly, have snowflakes coming down outside a barred window). If you can handle the occasional bursts of unyielding violence and the inevitable atmosphere of threat and menace, Un Prophete is a film that’s really worth seeing. You will learn certain techniques of defence and offence that you didn’t know you’d ever need. Keep that [removed due to accidental spoiler].