Pros: Excellent character study, intelligent, great acting, engaging, interesting subject matter.
Cons: A few brief periods of sluggishness.
Un Prophet was among the nominees for the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I have not seen The Secret in Their Eyes, which actually won in 2010. I did see another nomination, White Ribbon, which was a decent film, but clearly inferior to this film. If Un Prophet is any indication, then the winner must have been an excellent film, which I am adding to my queue.
Tahar Rahim plays a young Arab delinquent named Malik El Djebena who is sentenced to four years in an adult penitentiary, his first experience in the big leagues. El Djebena leads a life full of contradictions. The dichotomy of his characteristics appear contradictory, yet are fully reconciled. The role reminded me of the surreal scene painted in the Simon and Garfunkel song The Sounds of Silence. While seemingly contradictory and surreal, the words paint a picture of life that cannot be merely explained. Much of the meaning hides within the symbolism. It allows the writers to express themselves with broader meaning.
El Djebena has four long years to spend in prison. He is penniless and has no outside support. Although his parents were Muslim, he does not know them. Because he has no identity and no social structure within the prison, El Djebena becomes easy prey. He is a tough kid and he is patient. An opportunity arises that can win El Djebena the support of the Corsican mob, who are at the top tier of the prison social structure. They own the guards, they run the prison, and they make the rules. These rules can include who lives and who dies.
When a snitch named Santi (Jean-Emmanuel Pagni) arrives at the prison to testify at a trial involving the Corsicans, the prison Don (Cesar Luciani, played by Niels Arestrup) summons El Djebena to do his bidding. In exchange, El Djebena will win the protection of the Corsicans. When El Djebena reluctantly undertakes the task (it wasn't really an offer as much as an order), he struggles against it. Although El Djebena is a hardened criminal that likes to fight the police, a shred of humanity exists within him. With no choice in the matter, El Djebena dispatches Santi in a violent attack. In a surreal turn of events, Santi becomes El Djebena's conscience. The apparition guides El Djebena's rise to the top.
The stength of Un Prophet lies in the character development. The seemingly incongruous characteristics point to deeper traits that paint a complex character. El Djebena is neither Muslim nor Corsican. Yet he finds himself protected by both power structures. Although an idealist, he is a flagrant opportunist. His capacity for violence seems contrasted by his ability to show compassion. El Djebena appears submissive, yet he is a ruthless predator. These opposing traits are reconciled in El Djebena's underlying traits. He is calculated and cunning. He measures his opportunities and maximizes his ability to exploit them to his own advantage. His patience and cunning allow him to turn the tables on his adversaries. In the process, we are given an exceptional character portrait that holds together the rest of the writing. The plot is excellent, but it works on the strength of the lead character development. Director Jacques Audiard was assisted in preparing the screenplay by writer Thomas Bidegain. It was based on an earlier screenplay by writers Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicholas Peufaillit.
An exceptional character study is useless in the hands of a novice actor. In order to breathe life into an intricate charcter, a film must be cast properly. Un Prophet accomplishes this with the casting of Rahim. Rahim manages to reconcile the diverging characteristics to make the traits credible. Rahim was amazing. His performance was complemented by an equally well cast Luciani. Power isn't always physical. Although older, Arestrup is a credible mob boss. He manages to create an edginess about his character that makes him distastefully vile, but credible. As a character driven film, Un Prophet benefits from outstanding performances from the entire cast.
Un Prophet was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America. The film has plenty of violence, but actually shows restraint. While there are some graphic scenes that point toward the high end of the gore spectrum, the film never goes overboard. The violence is well managed, contextual and just bloody enough to be realistic. Male nudity is another factor affecting the rating, along with adult themes. At 155 minutes, the film did not seem as long as the run time would suggest, although there were a few brief periods of sluggishness.
I thoroughly enjoyed Un Prophet. The film was extremely well written with characters an audience can identify with. The strong casting complements the excellent script. Although the run time could be trimmed down slightly, the film never bogged down for me. There were a few sluggish spots that were very brief. It was not enough to affect my rating, which stands at a full five stars. Do not miss this film. It could very easily have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Another entry in Foshizzlee's Foreign Film Write-off.