Cannes 2009 Review: Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete
by Alex Billington
May 16, 2009
I had never seen a Jacques Audiard film before today, but now I want to go back watch all of his films. I was waiting to finally discover something exceptional here at Cannes, and this it. I caught Audiard's Un Prophete - which stands for just A Prophet in English - this morning and was mesmerized. Even though it has an immense 150 minute running time and it was very early in the morning, I was captivated from start to finish, never at all restless. From Tahar Rahim's stand out performance to Alexandre Desplat's amazing score to Stéphane Fontaine's wonderful cinematography, everything about Un Prophete is exceptional.
Un Prophete follows Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) from the moment he arrives in a French prison. In there, an inmate named César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) runs the joint - he has good relations with the guards, a group of 20 or so thug inmates under his control, and a grudge against the Arabs inside. As we soon find out, there is a mob-like society inside the prison, and right off the bat El Djebena is recruited to help carry out a mission. But this is only just the start. Not only does that first mission come to haunt him for the rest of his six year sentence, but he soon starts working his way up the ranks entirely on his own.
This might not be the best comparison, but I could call El Djebena a French Frank Lucas. Much like in American Gangster, Malik starts working with all the different "gangs" - the Arabs, Corsicans, French - not just one group, and he only works for himself (much like Lucas did). I make that comparison because as great as it was to watch American Gangster, it was even more thrilling watching Un Prophete unfold. Part of the way through his prison sentence, El Djebena gets the chance to take leave from prison for 12 hours at a time, and begins coordinating drug deals and hits on an even wider scope beyond the prison walls.
With each and every new scene, we're given something fresh, whether it be a new task from César or more information from the outside. Audiard is an incredible storyteller, that's obvious, but it really shows with the character of El Djebena and how he introduces us to more of the story as time goes on. It's not that there is any big reveal, but it's a coming-of-age like look at how one man goes from being a nobody to the most well-respect mobsters in the prison system. It's very well-paced, always moving swiftly, and never dull. And the performances from Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup are what made the film so riveting to watch.
What I love about the way Audiard approaches this is that there's no need to ever show how El Djebena ended up in jail. He's a new man from the moment he arrives in prison, and this is about that new life he's now living. César is also the driving force in the film, because there's so much mystery surrounding him, and at any moment we could discover that he has ties outside of prison that extend beyond drugs. While it's a great character study, Un Prophete is also a refined and exhilarating exploration of societies in prisons, feuds between different races in France, and just how far relentless determination can take someone.
Cannes Rating: 9 out of 10