Here's the squib on Un Prophète, the new film by Jacques Audiard: A naïve and illiterate young Franco-Arab man goes to prison, possibly for something he didn't do, and comes out a seasoned criminal, thanks to the tutelage of a Corsican mobster.
The longer version of the plot is, well, longer. But to tell you the truth, there's really not much to add. Audiard is one of the world's most competent filmmakers. Of course, so is Michael Bay. For about 90 minutes his movie builds its story and character well, and the actors, especially up-and-comer Tahar Rahim as Malik, perform with solid intensity.
But the last hour of Un Prophète turns into a languid gangland melodrama with nothing left to say. In fact, it probably doesn't say much to begin with: Is it reassuring to know that Muslim immigrant communities are more dangerous for their criminal activities than for their assumed terrorist affiliations? Or that, regardless of our native culture, there's more than a little larceny in all of us? Welcome to film ne-plus-noir.
Un Prophète begins where most prison movies do: Malik, age 19 and terrified, checks into his new accommodation, gets naked, bends over, coughs and tries to smuggle some money into the joint by hiding it in his shoe. They find it, and it goes into a box for safekeeping these next six years, waiting to appear again at the end when he checks out, at which point he's considerably more flush. (Small irony, no?)
Malik keeps to himself at first: He doesn't bond with the other Arabs, and stays away from the Corsicans and their silver-haired don, César (Niels Arestrup). But César doesn't stay away from him. Like a predator singling out the suckling in the herd, he orders Malik to kill someone -- an Arab -- or else be killed himself.
Audiard is good at this sort of thing, and the killing -- along with some hits at the end -- are among the most visceral and exciting moments in the film. The buildup to it is even better, as we watch Malik practice how to hide his weapon, a razor blade, in his mouth. Naturally, when he's in the room with the man he's about to kill, he doesn't talk much. When his lip begins to bleed, we know it's time for someone to die.
Slowly, Malik changes, becoming more confident at his endeavors, while still having to bear the ignominy of racial slurs (especially from César, who's happy to exploit and insult him). When, after several years, his good behavior warrants a day pass, he visits a paroled Muslim friend who now has a wife, a child and a job for Malik in a garage. He's also committing a bit of crime on the side, so when the industrious Malik is on leave, he can work for his friend and for César.
Malik is the sort of criminal you want to see get away with it, in part because he was forced into his life of crime, and in part because the people who forced him are far worse. In prison he takes classes to learn to read, and he also studies economics, both of which help in his new career. (Irony encore.)
In some ways, life in a French (movie) prison is just like life in an American (movie) one: cliques form, gangs rule, and the guards can't do anything about it. César has good food and a TV, and he can even snatch a little R&R now and then, if you know what I mean. Every night at dinner, each inmate gets a long crusty baguette to accompany his repast, and one guy gets pissed off when he misses dessert.
Audiard's previous film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, was a remake of the American indie film Fingers. He has a fascination with American culture (what French filmmaker doesn't?), and he ends Un Prophète with a version of "Mack the Knife" playing over the closing credits. It's a slow, haunting, twangy rendition by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, very much like it sounds in the German original in Threepenny Opera. It's a nice accent, but like so much of Un Prophète, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, that's finally all it is. In French, Italian and Arabic, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., April 2. Regent Square