Hopefully this doesn’t sound disjointed and rambling. This is a lazy post for a film that really deserves quite a bit written about it, but I’m tired.
I love A Prophet. Gangster film, ghost story, prison drama, spiritual meditation, social commentary (whether Audiard wants it to be or not) all wrapped into one. A few things I noticed on my second big-screen viewing (SPOILERS below):
-This is much funnier than I remember. The scene where Reyeb is first introduced as a “ghost” (or personification of guilt) begins with him singing happy birthday and using his finger as a birthday candle. It’s funny because of the unexpected action, the fact that he’s singing happy birthday commemorating Malik’s one-year in prison, and mostly, because he’s “celebrating” the one-year anniversary of his own death. This is Audiard’s humor – pathos and absurdity mixed.
-Is this film to be taken as religious commentary? The Corsican prison population seems to have no religious affiliation. The Muslim population makes references, but they are few and far between. There are shots of prayer. One sequence (Malik’s solitary confinement) is subtitled “40 Days and 40 Nights” – a fairly obvious comparison to the biblical plight. Yet Malik’s “prophesying” is self-serving. He foresees a deer coming into the middle of the road and his ability to foretell the event saves his own life and allows him to work the Italian/Corsican/Muslim conflict within and outside of prison to his own advantage (and, worth noting, to the specific disadvantage of Cesar). I think I’m playing right into Audiard’s hand here: keep the religious as backdrop but never delve too deeply into it. Make Malik a Jesus/Mohammed figure, but only as comparison point and not as physically influencing the course of action.
-My only beef with this film: the subtitles introducing characters and sequences. Feels too Guy Ritchie (a terrible, terrible thing). And it seems disjointed. From memory I can recall four characters being introduced with a subtitle (three Muslims within prison and Latif The Egyptian) and three sequences – Economics (crosscut between Malik taking an economics test in prison and starting his drug trade), 40 Days and 40 Nights (Malik’s solitary confinement), and…now I’m blanking.
So the tie here is that no Corsicans are introduced via subtitle (nor are either of the main characters) and that the “event” sections are all ironically used – Malik’s 40 Days is not a fast nor a temptation; it’s an escape, and one that is clearly calculated. Aside from these threadlines, I can’t find a way to work them into the over-arching narrative, and the meanings that I do settle on seem forced (placing importance over one social-sect, subtitles “foreseeing” the ending in the same way that Malik does, etc).
-I said this in my introduction at the Dryden Theater to The Beat That My Heart Skipped (also Audiard). This man is obsessed with language. Language becomes a metaphor for assimilation, advancement, intelligence, evolution, etc. The connection from film-to-film is obvious: A Self-Made Hero – the protagonist learns English in order to fit in at resistance-veteran meetings; Read My Lips is based largely on the communication, or lack thereof, of a deaf/mute; The Beat That My Heart Skipped – a French and Chinese woman communicate only via piano; A Prophet – Malik learns Corsican in order to communicate with, spy on, and maneuver around the Corsican population that uses him as a puppet.
If one mark of an “auteur” is a common theme or trait within a filmography this is one of the most remarkable within Audiard’s. Not to say he doesn’t have others: the use of slow-motion imagery clashing with a “regular speed” soundtrack – used to great effectiveness in the 40 Days 40 Nights sequence. A pop music soundtrack that doesn’t need to annoyingly comment through lyrics on the action (though it does at times) but instead undermines the seriousness of some scenes, gives an energy and carelessness to the films, and contrasts with his often desaturated mise-en-scene.
Like I said before…so much more to say. Maybe I’ll write more on A Prophet later. In the meantime, here is my introduction to the film:
“Jacques Audiard’s 2009 film A Prophet has been likened to everything from The Godfather to Scarface, which is funny because this seems to the first of the French director’s films that is wholly and entirely his own.
A Prophet is Audiard’s 5th film as director after beginning his career as a writer. His other films, while quite good, always seemed to owe perhaps a bit too much to his contemporaries and those he wrote for.
The success of this film is due in large part to the fact that some elements he’s favored – a subtle fascination with the surreal and fantastic as well as a social message – don’t form only a background here, but are fully integrated into the narrative.
Take some of Audiard’s past films. A Self-Made Hero showcases a few wonderfully whimsical moments that act as transition, where the main character, against a black backdrop, moves in fast motion, fluttering his hands like a bird. In The Beat That My Heart Skipped the action suddenly and unexpectedly slows, only momentarily, at a particularly poignant moment in a club.
These plays with the literal speed of the film are the early hints at Audiard’s obsession with the surreal, but in these examples they function as interludes, transitions, and asides. In A Prophet, the surreal actually functions to propel the story forward. It is fully integrated. There’s a particular sequence – impossible to miss – involving a deer that is testament to this.
In my introduction to The Beat That My Heart Skipped I read a quote from Audiard that I’d like to repeat here:
“Cinema for me only has meaning when it has a relationship with what I see outside on the street.”
Well, in an interview with the Huffington Post following the screening of A Prophet at Cannes Audiard had this to say:
“Of course it has no message…it’s cinema. It’s fiction. It comes from nowhere.”
These two quotes, perhaps appearing contradictory, really serve together to sum up Audiard’s cinema up to this point.
His is a fusion of the social realist and the blissfully fictional. The former part of this fusion – where the protagonist, an Arab caught between a Muslim and Corsican prison population – blossoms alongside the latter in A Prophet.
I want to close with one last note. Audiard’s films are not without humor and are, in fact, often quite funny. So is the man himself.
When directing the explosive Niels Arestrup, who plays Cesar, he gave him a simple line of direction: “You are a lion playing with your food.” I think it’s pretty effective.”