The big difference is that as smart and artistic as “Un Prophète” can be, it never feels like a master’s thesis or an art project. It’s inhabited by a winning confidence that you don’t need to adopt a solemn tone and an austere style to make a great film. Art films are fine (like I said, I did like “The White Ribbon”), but, to me anyway, cinema at its best can be wildly entertaining as well.
As such, “Un Prophète” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as such gangster movie classics as “The Godfather”, “Scarface”, “Goodfellas” and “City of God”, all films that, while not necessarily glorifying their protagonists, at least had the good sense not to turn into boring, self-righteous cautionary tales. We all know already that in reality, crime and violence are wrong, and all those films don’t dispute that. Yet that doesn’t mean their directors can’t make their outlaw characters into iconic badasses, weave an engrossing story, orchestrate memorable set pieces, allow themselves to have sense of humor and let loose with the visuals, editing and music cues.
In “Un Prophète”, Audiard recounts with mythmaking prowess the tale of Malik El Djebena (amazing newcomer Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19 year old Arab who, upon arriving in a French prison, is taken under his wing by Cesar Luciani (a larger than life Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mafia kingpin who rules over the jail with an iron fist. Initially only doing Luciani’s dirty work, Malik soon decides to make a name for himself, slowly but surely rising in power and becoming a feared presence, both inside and outside the prison walls…
Initially rather gray, damp and dark, shot tightly with handheld cameras and keeping things down to earth, “Un Prophète” mirrors Malik’s ascent stylistically by gradually becoming more assertive itself, Scorsese-ing it up, embracing the fact that it is as movie-movie, not a documentary, ultimately even having our hero crack a smile during a shoot-out, in what might be the film’s most memorable moment.
At the same time, Audiard’s film generally seems perfectly plausible, depicting the often brutal dynamics of prison life insightfully and never having the characters behave inconsistently as far as the movie’s inner logic goes. So there you have it: great cinema and great entertainment all in the same package. It doesn’t get much better than this.