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Review: French film is classic prisoner of genre

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Roger Arpajou/Courtesy Sony Pictures ClassicsTahar Rahim, left, and Niels Arestrup star in the French prison drama "A Prophet," showing Wednesday and Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
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ASPEN – Prison is a ready-made setting for drama. The environment is volatile; the characters are dangerous and colorful. The look of a prison is familiar but also scary, and so are the rules that govern the place. It is a foreign, exotic land, but one where we know the customs and language.

Prison is also a place where the battle lines are clear: warden versus the inmate population (“The Shawshank Redemption”); prisoner versus guard (“Cool Hand Luke”); prisoner versus the prison itself (“Escape From Alcatraz”).

The latest classic in the prison drama genre, Jacques Audiard’s multiple award-winner “A Prophet,” pits one set of prisoners against another. The prison, in a bleak city in the north of France, is controlled by a small group of Corsicans. With connections outside the walls, suitcases of cash from drug trafficking, and a brutal leader named Cesar Luciani, the Corsicans bully the guards and dominate the band of Arab Muslim prisoners. The Arabs, as they are called – in fact, many are African or European – outnumber the Corsicans. But the Arabs’ characteristics – piety, modesty, abstemiousness – are not of great value on the inside. Vicious, unrelenting might rules.

Dropped on the fence is Malik. A young punk recently graduated from juvenile detention, Malik has no allegiances. By ethnicity he is an Arab, but he is not religious, and thus feels no bond to the Muslims. The Corsicans, never ones to miss such an opportunity, see his lack of affiliation as an asset, and press him into service as a reluctant assassin.

“A Prophet” can be taken as a standard gang procedural, akin to “Scarface,” the Brazilian film “City of God” and “The Godfather” saga. Malik, the young protege, humbly takes the abuse of his padrone, while stealthily developing the guile, viciousness and connections to elevate from prison peon to kingpin.

But the film skillfully, unobtrusively layers on dimensions beyond simple plot. Malik’s relationship with Cesar offers insight into domination and submissiveness. And Malik is followed around the prison by the ghost of the man he murdered, a device that opens up questions of guilt and the endurance of our sins.

The prison in “A Prophet,” filled with a growing population of Muslims eager to assert itself against a condescending Western/Christian culture, is also a metaphor for the world outside. Its bigger power, though, is on a simpler level. Like all prison classics, it sees the prison as a pressure cooker in which treachery, rivalry, violence and payback naturally form.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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