There’s a certain sense of justice that accompanies seeing the impotence of macho bravado behind bars that the gangster picture doesn’t offer. The character of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a figurehead of the Corsican National Front in “Un Prophète,” is the aging patriarch mob figure that I always crave to see broken in half. In prison, his character is pathetic, but performed well by Arestrup, who never looks as though he’s trying to make the best of a bad situation.
I can’t say the same for French director Jacques Audiard. “Un Prophète” plainly shows skill, but is finally too lengthy and shallow, a collection of situations in which scum of the earth try to reassert the power they had on the other side of the wall. The conduit for understanding their hierarchy is Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old Arab man who we see introduced to the prison system as the result of an unspecified crime. The warden looks over his file as Malik casts fearful glances into the prison yard.
Many of the film’s scenes are shot in the yard during break times. Men talk to one another with their eyes focused elsewhere, fooling themselves into thinking that even their body language and close proximity to people like César isn’t under constant scrutiny. The Corsicans, a group of about 15 men, run the prison. A man — “Reyeb,” we are told in big block letters — is transferred in, awaiting a court date to testify, and the Corsicans want him dead. They threaten to kill Malik if he doesn’t do the job, and he practices carrying a razor blade in his mouth.
The film’s effective first half-hour, a battle of wills between Malik and the Corsicans over Reyeb’s (Hichem Yacoubi) murder, is fueled by suspense and capped by a grisly, realistic act of violence that brought some audience members to walk out. In comparison to the hard criminals, Malik is fresh-faced and easy to empathize with as he assures their faith. Learning to read and speak their language, he develops a bond with César, who suffers a loss of power once most of his men are transferred. He makes a deal with Malik: straighten up and fly right on the inside so that he can go on day leave and take care of some business on the outside.
A group of Muslims in the prison are shifting the balance of power. Feeling the pull of heritage, Malik befriends Ryad (Adel Bencherif), a man with testicular cancer who wants to rehabilitate. The two men become involved in hash dealing and soon Malik has his own business to take care of. All the while, Reyeb’s ghost haunts Malik in his relatively cushy cell, exhaling smoke through the wound in his jugular.
Audiard shoots his scenes with a drained colour palette that captures the despair and hopelessness of these men’s lives. His actors, not professionals, are more convincing as a result. However, the script lacks depth and squanders an opportunity to reveal more about race and religious relations in France by making most of the characters one note. Men like Tom Waitsish drug-runner Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb) are introduced in Scorsese-style still frames. The still frames are almost a godsend, given the convolution of the characters, who are all bad and not much else.
Audiard flirts with arthouse by including a scene of a deer being struck by a car and hurtling beautifully through the air. Malik had a premonition of the event. If Malik is a prophet, what kind of prophet is he? What is the significance of his spending 40 days and 40 nights in solitary, or catching a handful of snow from his cell window? These moments and ideas belong in a much more interesting narrative that doesn’t slog its characters through a banal, brutal existence for the better part of two and a half hours.
The film’s length isn’t its chief problem. “Un Prophète” would be a similar picture with an hour cut away. Its scenes of violence seem to exist to hurry the plot along, providing the film’s most significant developments where actual character staging fails. We understand that Malik is descending upward through the ranks, but from where? He is serving a sentence of six years. Did he incite violence? Transport drugs? Commit manslaughter? He pleads his innocence, but after murdering Reyeb, there is no goodness in him. He is left to make the best of damnation.
Critics have thus far praised the film for its force and realism, but I’m doubtful. “Un Prophète” took the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes earlier this year. It’s bleak and disturbing and good at being both. It also suffers from an emptiness that prevents it from being the epic it aspires to be. Its complex structure inhibits its suspense. Malik may feel in over his head at moments, but I didn’t care. None of these men can look each other in the eye. How was I supposed to?
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