Trials and tribulations of “A Prophet”

While we Americans may still be arguing about our own prisons both on and off-shore, we sometimes forget that there are other countries out there with equally messed-up incarceration systems. For a swift and sharp reminder, crime-drama master Jacques Audiard gives us “Un Prophete.” Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and winner of much more international acclaim, Audiard’s glimpse into organized prison crime rings is a captivatingly realized experience for those willing to do the time.

Malik el Djebena is serving a six-year system for an unrevealed offense when he is pulled into the criminal underbelly of the prison by Corsican gang kingpin, Cesar Luciani. After rising a bit through the ranks, Malik educates himself in the business and finds an ally in fellow prisoner Ryad, who later becomes an outside contact when released. Despite his conscience haunting him with a ghostly visage of his first kill, Malik becomes a respected lieutenant in Luciani’s gang, and is entrusted with various urban criminal acts when the kingpin manages short furloughs for Malik.

It’s in this constant flux between the outside and inside world that Malik’s world becomes dangerously complicated. Committing the common criminal sin of starting up his own gang business on the side, the Corsican lieutenant’s life becomes even more complex when granted seemingly prophetic powers following a traumatic car crash.

Given the leap of faith required with any prison spirituality, “Un Prophete” presents a sickeningly true-to-life vision of the corrupt nature of prison gang life. The minute intricacies of bribery, message sending and barter economy are examined in excruciating detail, each cog within the prison crime machine working with the expertise and creativity expected of an incarcerated kingpin mind. The film makes no effort to soften the often-gruesome details of gang life either, with one of the earliest exchanges between Malik and another prisoner being an offer of drugs in exchange for sex.

Complicating an already exhaustive hierarchal structure is an underlying exploration of racial politics: Malik is an already isolated Muslim entering an ethnically varied prison. The final narrative is rich but involved, each plot point pulling on multiple main and side-plot threads. While not overly complex, the film’s mosaic story requires some hard focus, which isn’t too much of a request considering the engrossing brutality of the film’s main settings. But when a film’s chapter headings remind you of character relationship trees, it isn’t something you can occasionally glance at in between popcorn bucket dives.

Not helping the matter is the film’s cinematography. While it was smart to mirror the stark and lifeless angles of the prison with a limited, razor-straight shot structure, the lack of flourishing camera movement gives the movie as a whole a dry sensibility that seems to belie its cinematic storytelling.

Where this film succeeds most subtly is its use of non-actors: the vast majority of characters appearing both in frame and the background are either those with prison experience or simple non-professionals. Whereas most films attempting the admittedly cheaper casting route would falter in their sense of atmosphere for their decision, one of Audiard’s directorial gifts seems to be the coaching of amateurs. Whether it’s newcomer Tahar Rahim as Malik or an out of focus background prisoner, Audiard’s influence manages a convincing and deep performance that serves to further entrance the audience. The combined effect of such nuanced attention is a living and breathing prison environment, blending with the script’s breathless detail to present one of the most starkly realistic portrayals of prison criminality ever seen on screen.Design-wise, “Un Prophete” mirrors the cinematography’s “less-is-more” mantra with noticeably more success; managing to portray a lot of personality with prison uniforms and metal dish trays. The locales boast a stunning range; from the caustic ode-to-cement prison to the various littered streets of the outlying city; contrasting smartly with mellow expertise. The soundtrack fluctuates from somber to erratic with definite style, if lacking that certain spark or theme to truly distinguish itself.

“Un Prophete,” like prison itself, is place where a person can find the true measure of themselves. The various interconnecting characters and crimes form a thick congealed mosaic that may be difficult for casual filmgoers to swallow, making Jean-Luc Godard’s more experimental work look like a cheap blockbuster adaptation, For those that can survive on the inside, Audiard’s prison is full of blistering detail and astonishingly unflattering looks into the depth of criminal inter-connections. Few films can boast as much boldness in its script and direction as “Un Prophete,” and pulling it off with a cast of unknowns is only further testament to the skill involved. Prison has a new style