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Film Review: Un Prophète

Nick Forrester writing for VINGT Paris 

Un-prophete2One of this year’s most widely anticipated French films was released this summer to universal praise. Un Prophète claimed a handful of awards at Cannes, and it will surely go on to win further acclaim. Jacques Audiard’s portrayal of a French prison is packed with masterful realism about the gritty life behind bars, but the thrust of this depiction comes from the twists and turns of the plot.

Malik enters the prison on a six-year sentence with fear in his eyes and a scowl on his face. He's North African, but the fact that Malik is not a practicing Muslim means he doesn't fit into either of the two main groups in the prison: the Muslims and the Corsicans. He finds himself in between both these dangerous groups. Despite life-threatening encounters with both, he has a certain quality which enables him to survive.

Audiard’s casting of Tahar Rahim as Malik, until now a completely unknown actor, to play alongside one of France’s finest actors, Niels Arestrup, followed a chance car ride from a film set. Audiard saw in Rahim something he couldn’t find in the other 40 other actors he eventually auditioned. "When I looked into his eyes there was no melancholy, no tragedy, just someone very open, very light, very full of life", said Audiard.

The character of Malik has a similar innocence when entering the prison. He stumbles, but he manages to gradually earn the favor of the prison's powerful Corsicans. We see his innocence gradually fade and learn the sinister inner workings of the prison and the methods for survival. His youthful, naive gaze and submissive posture allow him to slip under the radar, all the while developing a shrewd and ruthless streak.

Arestrup’s performance is fantastic: the gnarled, respected old criminal he plays basically has the run of the prison. It is largely his influence over young Malik which triggers the development from a petty thief into a hardened criminal. Malik learns to take advantage of situations as much as he is manipulated himself.

With the film soon to be leaving French cinemas, it is important that it's legacy is enduring. With prison populations in France, the UK and the US recently at record levels, this film asks for a re-think on the nature of modern detention. Without overly moralizing, each character is trying to make their own way, sustain or improve their situation. Audiard did not want to portray evil characters -- these are just men, battling it out in a hostile environment. Malik grappling with his identity is a tangible and heartfelt tale of survival, even success.

You can click here to find showtimes.

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