Jacques Audiard is a French writer-director who's brought American influences into his country's crime film genre. His previous picture, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, was a do-over of James Toback's Fingers. I haven't seen Fingers, but I liked Audiard's film for the most part, so I was willing to give him another shot, especially when Un Prophete was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. This time the influence is more Scorsesean, but since Martin Scorsese has never made a prison film, Audiard gets points for originality. I also see the influence on the soundtrack; Alexandre Desplat must share time with a variety of pop tunes, often sung or rapped in English (have the French no version of Mackie Messer?). For all I know, this sonic atmosphere reflects the reality of the French underworld, but it also makes the film seem slightly less French somehow, though this isn't a criticism of the film. In fact, the foreign music on the soundtrack is in keeping with the globalization of crime portrayed in the picture as the traditional French criminal element gradually yields to more exotic growths.
The "prophet" of the title is Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a friendless small-timer on his first stretch in prison. He's the ultimate new fish or greenhorn; he can't keep the guards from confiscating his one 50-franc note or two goons from mugging him for his sneakers on his first outing in the yard. In his complete isolation he needs to become protected (literally a protege). He won't pay the price another prisoner, Reyeb, demands -- oral sex. But he soon finds himself with no choice but to pay the price the Corsican mob demands -- accept Reyeb's proposition, but kill him. The Corsicans run the show in stir; they're like Paulie's gang in Goodfellas' prison interlude. After messily doing his duty (he must carry a razor in his mouth), Malik becomes the unlikely protege of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestup), the old top dog of the Corsicans, gradually earning privileges while availing himself of the prison education system. As a loner, Malik finds himself able to move among different ethnic factions, befriending a Gypsy drug dealer who tells him of a stash of opium that Malik acquires during a furlough arranged by Cesar for the Corsican's own purposes. With help from his former prison tutor, now on the outside, Malik sets up his own drug racket, smuggling stuff into the prison and enhancing his own position, but risking his standing with Cesar, who needs him to keep clean in order to keep getting furloughs. But a shift in political winds reduces the Corsican cohort in this particular prison, threatening Cesar's power despite his continued influence over the hacks (guards). Outside, Corsicans, Italians, Arabs, Egyptians and others vie for power, creating more opportunities for Malik to build alliances and play groups off each other, even as things get more dangerous for him.
What makes Malik a "prophet?" The one time anyone calls him that in the film is when he saves himself from angry gangsters by warning them that deer are about to run into the path of their car. He had, in fact, dreamt about deer on the road earlier in the picture. That's one of the fantastic elements Audiard introduces, as if in acknowledgement of the implausibility of Malik's rise to power. The main recurring fantasy feature is the ghost of Reyeb, who chats with Malik occasionally to no real purpose, except perhaps to establish the protagonist's "miraculous" credentials. But Malik is mainly a prophet in a more mundane sense, on the historical model of a man of obscure origins who rallies disparate people together to become a power in the world. He's no preacher or lawgiver, and he's not particularly charismatic, but he has the power to inspire trust, especially as he learns to be up front about his agenda. When a clique of Muslim cons accuse him of trying to use them, he disarms them, metaphorically speaking, by asking, "Why not?" He takes advantage of the deer incident to confirm his captors' suspicion that he'd killed their friend Reyeb, and they spare him. Even Cesar, who's determined to keep him in a servile role most of the time, ultimately enlists him in a final hare-brained scheme to reassert his power on the outside because he trusts Malik more than others. When Audiard calls Malik a prophet, he doesn't mean the sort of dude who isn't honored in his own country -- not one of those Hebrews who gets killed for denouncing their rulers -- but a prophet on the specific model of Muhammad: a gifted man who overcomes his persecutors and may end up ruling them all, after his hijra in prison.
I don't know if the mystical elements really help the story, but they don't really hurt it, either. Un Prophete is a complex, intense and occasionally brutal crime thriller that kept me engaged for its entire 155 minutes. Audiard does a great job of getting you enraged at the injustice of a prison system that allows cliques to run amok and torment hapless individuals like Malik, whose comeback gets you rooting for him to beat the system and the system within the system. There are moments of major suspense when Malik's outside errands for Cesar put him in peril, or when he has to improvise when a climactic hit doesn't go according to plan. Rahim and Arestup are great in a rivalry that plays out under the surface of their scenes together, when Malik must maintain his servility and Cesar must pretend that he still runs things. And while the American influence is undeniable, Audiard never neglects his native social and demographic context. With Un Prophete he's helped keep the great French crime film tradition alive and well.
Here's an action-packed British trailer uploaded to YouTube by TheMovieJam: