Thursday, 11 February 2010

Un prophète (A Prophet) Jaques Aidiard (2009) – The definitive gangster film for a post credit crunch world

All posts may contain spoilers - accept this post as my views that are open for discussion, it is not a review and should only be read if you have seen the film. For synopsis or ratings see Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. One person's opinion or rating is pointless; these sites take their ratings from a collective and will give a better and more fair view of the general acceptance of this film.

I know it’s not the first film I have seen in 2010 but Un prophète really does set the precedence for the year. I very much doubt there will be a better film than this released any time soon. The film straddled the genre line perfectly and included enough elements for it to be unmistakably part of the relatively niche prison film genre or the much more commonly recognised gangster film genre, yet at the same time it flaunted certain elements in order to really make a point. This is the whole point of genre being formed and the reason that genre in cinema is so important. Not so that lazy writers and directors can churn out ‘sure fire’ predictable hits but so that geniuses and directorial wizards like Jaques Aidiard can subvert certain mythologies in a recognisable and engaging format. It was from Steve Neale that I learned the importance of this repetition and variation. This film could well have been used to prove his point as to why the variation from certain expectations can be so impactful and carry so much weight and significance.

Postmodern Identity (not attached to grand narratives)

Malik (Tahar Rahim) has never – despite society’s efforts - assigned himself a specific identity; he doesn’t consider himself Arab, he definitely isn’t Corsican and he didn’t consider himself particularly French. He repeatedly and unashamedly insists that he works for himself whenever his allegiances are questioned. He is the capitalist dream! But not the overbloated capitalist dream that created characters like Scarface’s Tony Montana. This Montana-esque capitalism is that of overindulgence and greed, which is the same capitalism that has recently brought the global economy to its knees. Both Montana and the greedy capitalism he embodies survived on an ever-expanding need for power and status which ultimately and inevitably leads to a dramatic crash, which is realised in this film through Cesar’s Corsicans. This is why Malik is so timely, arriving after last years implosion of this bloated capitalism but still championing capitalism’s individualistic qualities and a postmodern identity unassigned to any grand narratives. He does not have that essential character trait of the genre: the greed for power and status. An important illustration of this is when one of the muslim inmates asks Malik what he wanted (in return for a favour). The inmate asked if it was reputation he was after, to which Malik replied “do I look Corsican?” This was the film showing clearly that this old way of thinking is outdated and would only result in his demise. Just as it did with Cesar, the Corsicans and by symbolic extension the old systems so prevalent throughout modernity, concluding in the current financial turmoil. This character has respect for other people (who deserve it), for friends, for family and he lacks the greed for power and pig-headed pride usually assigned to the protagonist of the gangster genre. He knows who he needs to please or appease to get to where he needs without this pride getting in his way; hence he is polite to the guards and has no qualms with authority. Cesar (being the epitome of the outdated and soon to crumble system) does not understand why Malik still makes coffee for the Corsicans even though he has access to much higher places in the criminal, hierarchical food chain. It is this unrelenting emphasis on pride that is going to leave the old gangster behind and simultaneously it is this refusal to conform to these hierarchical systems that allow Malik to adapt to the changing multicultural world of postmodernity and therefore this is why he is the future.

Not only is this character at odds with the usual Gangster protagonist but so too is the overall theme of the film. An almost essential part of the gangster genre - the punishment of the lead character for working outside the system - is completely absent and a common element of the prison drama genre - the portrayal of authority and the system as relentlessly grim and unfair – is also not an emphasis. Yes it shows that the guards are a little crooked but it doesn’t show them as the caricatured tyrannical fascists usually seen in the genre. The film shows that the system is not going to get you everything but it doesn’t show it to leave you with nothing. When his friend Ryad (Abel Bencherif) was out in the real world he got a job and rehabilitated fine, or at least could have. This would be ok for some and he admitted in his letter to Malik that the outside isn’t fantastic but it is better than life inside. The main problem was that he couldn’t use his real identity: he could not use his Arab name when working at the call centre. Again this may be fine for some but the world that this film is promoting is one where individuals are completely free to have their own identity, not in any way feeling obliged to use one ascribed to them by others (this oversimplifies where people generate their identity but there is not the capacity to open this Pandora's box at the minute). So this isn’t good enough for him and he turns to crime. The usual gangster film message here would be ‘right if you cannot conform you will die’ and although this character does die, it was not due to his illegal activity but due to testicular cancer, which he would have suffered from no matter what. (I understand that some may read this as a biblical or supernatural punishment)

Genre deviation

All the way through this film - due to genre expectations - I was expecting the fall that always comes after the rise. I was very empathetic towards and attached to the character of Malik, so much so I was getting upset in anticipation for his demise along with being annoyed, thinking that he did not deserve it and that it would undermine everything else the film was trying to achieve. It shows that he never chose this life, that he ended up there as a product of society; he had no parents, grew up in juvenile centres, we never know why he was imprisoned but it really doesn’t matter, he was always going to end up there. The usual conventions - seen in many prison dramas - see the protagonist going to jail for something petty then ending up having his time extended, getting hooked on crack and ultimately probably dying, miserable and alone. The message being that the slightest deviation from the system’s laid out (legal) path will result in your horrific demise. I cannot help but think that there were certain scenes and plot points that played on these expectations, like when he took some heroin; I thought ‘oh here comes the fall’ but no, he never became a hopeless addict, just tried it out then got on with his life. These scenes were put in purposefully to flaunt how it was subverting certain genre elements, as rather than this predictable plot Malik did the opposite: he went in as nothing, with no family, he could not even read or write. He came out with friends, a family, fully literate, could speak additional languages and had a firm grasp of economics; he had a full life and he got all the way through his sentence without extension even getting time back in the form of early parole for good behaviour. He never got sucked in by any of the grand narratives that his identity could have latched onto; none of the racial/social identities nor the religious ones. He didn’t find Alah, which I was worried about as this would have destroyed the idea of staying unattached to grand narratives that I saw as being so important during this film.

Choosing family

The very important thing that rounds off the points made above (of Malik being a new breed of gangster protagonist and therefore avoiding the rise and fall) was at the end of the film when he left the prison. He chose to go to his family, the family that he had inherited from his friend (in effect the film here even destroys established notions of how important the biological part of family is). Yes it showed the support that he had from the criminal underground in the form of the cars full of his outside contacts but he barely acknowledged them and when he found out that his friend’s wife came on the bus, he could have easily arranged them a lift home, but chose to get the bus with her. This to me really rounded off the fact that everything Malik had done during the course of these six years was a sort of self-defence and necessity for seeing him through his sentence, but now, rather than chasing an insatiable need for power and status he still realises what was important to him, which he identified in a discussion at some point during the film as being happy and making his friends happy.


Usually at the end of one of my posts, I try to briefly go over any gaps, flaws or disappointments no matter how vague they may have been. I’m afraid that with this film - at least at the minute - I cannot, I guess that means I think it was flawless.

In Summary

This is a landmark film in terms of the gangster genre but also contemporary filmmaking in general; that an international film can make such an impact on a genre dominated by Hollywood in the past. It is more current and progressive than any gangster film of my generation. I cannot really comment on something like The Godfather’s statements on society at the time as I was not around at its release and although I can read around it I can never fully feel a part of that time. This film, due to the reasons outlined above, mainly surrounding the state of capitalism is a true sign of our time. It does not disavow the need for a free market but it greatly criticises the way that these systems - and the whole of society along with it - has been twisted by certain controlling powers. This film champions the importance of the individual and the importance of respecting people on your own terms. Malik was a prophet but not one assigned to any religion (though I’m sure religions could claim him) but to the world in general. He came and cleansed an already decaying system, leaving it open for whatever is to come. The way he left with his family at the end shows that this cleansing was his job, his purpose, he completed it and now he is leaving it to others to sort out, pick up the pieces and maintain. Despite the constant tension, threat of peril and scenes such as the razorblade extraction practice, this really is a feel good, uplifting film.

1 comment:

  1. good stuff ...

    i really like what you have to say about pride and how Malik's search for survival and education in the face of a hardship like prison that would destroy or dismantle 99 out of 100 people is the main crux of the story. in that regard, i can totally agree with you about the film ultimately being uplifting.

    it really does subvert the genres and keep the tale interesting. not only is he making a name for himself, but he is staying true to the man he is. the simple fact that his victim—the kill that allowed him to not only become the man he will but to survive at all—stays with him throughout shows not necessarily guilt, but instead how he values life. he doesn't regret what he did because he needed to do it, but he also would never dismiss the body as inconsequential. a humanity always remains no matter what bad occurs, and i totally agree with you about the end with his new 'family' showing exactly that.