Un Prophète (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Un Prophète</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, September 2011) A lengthy but rarely uninteresting sit at nearly two hours and a half, Un Prophète is essentially a look at the life of a young Arab man during his year-long incarceration in a French prison.  It plays out quite a bit more entertainingly that a simple statement of the premise will suggest, though: Within moments, our protagonist is manipulated by a bunch of Corsican prisonners into murdering an incarcerated witness, and the protection he earns in this fashion propels the rest of the action.  Part of the film’s pleasure is seeing the quasi-defenseless protagonist, ably played by Tahar Rahim, grow into a wheeler, schemer and eventually win over his opponents.  After a few disjointed minutes in which the quasi-documentary cinematography calls attention to itself, the film’s narrative arc progresses along nicely, adding and removing threats as it advances.  It makes for compelling viewing, especially as the film moves away from its initially bleak and uncompromising tone to a somewhat more hopeful conclusion.  Less happily, the film occasionally indulges into a bit of magical realism in which reality is bent to ghostly advice and artful foreshadowing (hence the title) –much hidden depth is suggested by the film’s artful flourishes, but it does take away from the more reality-based bulk of the film.  Still, that’s not enough to take away much of the impact of this big, full, engrossing film: Un prophète is a look at a reality most will hopefully never experience, but it’s also a terrific story about someone working with the cards he’s been given.  Most disturbing, perhaps, is the non-judgement of the camera –the criminal as a hero, obviously, with the disappearance of his ghostly conscience a minor loss when he manages to work the system to his end.  The final images of the film suggest that a happy life will never be possible, and that he will always be followed no matter how he tries to escape.  Deservedly nominated for an Oscar, Un Prophete offers a dazzling mix of allegory, thematic depth and pure old-fashioned storytelling.  It’s worth the sit.

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