A Prophet (Un Prophéte) – Jacques Audiard (FR 2009) Malik el Djebena; Niels Arestrup
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd Feb 2010 ticket price £7.00
The vision of the amnesiac
By the end of A Prophet (AP) I felt underwhelmed by its gangster story inanity and its duration. But I was struck by something else in the film, a theme that underlies the movie but that mostly remains in the background. The theme that dare not speak its name: the emergence of Islam from out of the shadows as a potent collective social and moral force to rival the West and Christianity.
The length of movie (155mins) has nothing to do with any attempt in the film to find a language for the experience of the passing of time in prison and more to do with Jacques Auriard’s (JA) stretching out his rite de passage theme to cover issues outside his main concern. Like many contemporary directors JA only seems to feel secure with his material if he packs out his script with a series of extraneous references to personal problems, social issues etc. (in contrast compare Robert Bresson’s Un condamné a mort s’ est échappé) So AP is bulked out with the ‘apparition story’, the ‘cancer story’, and titled chapters dealing with a array of lesser and mostly forgettable characters.
TP as film, in its settings and lighting, the camera work, the nature of its acting and dramatic rendering, is simply an inflated TV experience. The film’s creative style is premised on heightened replication of its realised setting – the prison. The prison is then exploited as a melodramatic background against which to project an acting style built on cliché and sentimental exploitation of the narrative. As in TV the use of the camera as the indexical tool is restricted to changes of angle, in particular shot reverse shot, and the consequent use of this limited vocabulary to pace the action. JA makes little alternative use of his camera other than to set up opportunities to manipulate the action in the edit. In particular this limitation of filmic vocabulary is exposed in the interactions between Tahar and the apparition of his victim in his cell. There is so little filmic understanding of the relationship that all JA can do is repeat the contrivance. The repetition quickly exhausts interest in the relationship (which seems to have nowhere to go) . The final shot of ‘the victim on fire’ seems little more than a heavy handed symbolic event contrived to mark the point of change in Tahar’s consciousness of his situation. A shot deployed to arouse flagging audience indifference. With his limited filmic sensibility AP seems to run out of ideas and energy in making the narrative of AP work. Dramatically the film is reduced, like many French gangster films, to endless repetition of dramatic motifs and emotive vamping.
What works in AP, is JA’s continuous return to the core situation: the prison. It is here, in the non action, in the ebb and flow of people through the psychic currents in the exercise yard and the corridors that the potent forces in the film reveal themselves. The prison as an allegorical setting: a substitute for the social matrix. This allegorical use of the prison is only a half glimpsed and has to burrow its way through to the surface of what is otherwise a wash of mediocre cliché’s rendering of gangsta’s in gaol. JA’s film works as an allegorical vehicle commenting on the West and Islam. As an allegorical vehicle it succeeds despite the banal style in which it is shot.
AP feels like it is a film that is really about a phantom narrative that develops alongside and in parrellel with the initiation story. And it not the Oedipal drama suggested by the relationship between Cesar and Tahar. If Tahar is not a naïf what is the story?
I think that the narrative concerning the rise of Tahar as super criminal is a feint, a decoy that overlayers the interesting concerns of AP which are the effects of Islam on French society. In actual fact, given the way he is portrayed in AP, a man with no past ( he can’t even remember his parents) Tahar is in effect an amnesiac. A device in effect for exposing the familiar. Tahar remembers nothing. He awakes in prison as if from a dream. He has no religion. He has no social background. He is placed in an environment where there are two groups. The old tired corrupt and corrupted Europeans ( represented by the Corsicans) who have lost all moral bearing; and the followers of Islam who are upright, uncorrupted spiritually and justified in their faith. A group bound by a hierarchic ethos of destructive individuality; the other group defined by collective worship. The prison of AP is an allegorical setting in which the amnesiac Tahar is put in a position where he has to make a series of decisions and eventually take up an allegiance with one or the other group. The West is spent old and corrupted. It is the vital moral claim of Islam that wins him over: Moslem corruption may be social but it is not spiritual. The depleted and morally exhausted state of the West, of Christianity is laid bare in the allegorical setting of the gaol. Perhaps this is why Tahar is the prophet: he chooses the path of righteousness even in crime, and crime is not the same as corruption. This is the message of a Prophet.
Of course like all allegories to be effective it is simple. In this case the allegory refers to only half of humanity. This is a male parable. Perhaps we need a female prophet.