There’s a style of filmmaking that I don’t seem to respond to. I find it in A Prophet — a nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film, representing France — and I’ve found it in recent French films Flight of the Red Balloon and Summer Hours, which are alike in that they received near unanimous praise from critics but failed to make much of an impression on me. Surely it’s not exclusively a French trait, but I’m noticing a trend — in myself as much as in the films.
Perhaps I am too accustomed to American, results-driven narrative styles, where the story builds to a definite conclusion. Cause and effect leads one scene inexorably to the next. Of course, I have loved countless looser, open-ended story structures — and for that matter have loved several French films as well — but A Prophet, along with the other aforementioned titles, is so open it’s slack. Its scenes do not gather momentum. They merely exist, and they are followed by other scenes, and eventually there comes a point where the story ends, or maybe the filmmaker just stops telling it, and perhaps some meaning can be found in the loose affiliation of events. Que será, será.
That may be a strange way to describe a prison-set crime thriller, but there you have it. When it opens, we meet Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old boy being processed at the start of a six-year stint in prison — for beating up cops, we’re told vaguely. But the specifics of his infraction aren’t important. What matters is his disposition. He is meek and defenseless, victimized as soon as he enters the general population, first losing his sneakers to petty thugs, then losing his innocence to gang of Corsican mafiosos led by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a grizzled veteran of organized crime, with a bulldog fearsomeness that belies his advanced years.
Cesar offers Malik “protection” in return for killing an Arab witness in a case; the alternative to being protected by Cesar is being killed by Cesar, so Malik isn’t left with much of a choice. The young man desperately carries out his mission in a scene of grueling physicality, and from there, working under the guidance of his Corsican benefactor, he begins his life of crime.
Theirs might be seen as a father-son relationship, if there were any affection in it. Cesar, domineering and mean, gives Malik petty gifts and allowances along with his protection, but never misses an opportunity to remind him that he’s an outsider. Malik, stuck on the fringes of a distinctly European multiculturalism — he will never be more than a servant to the Corsicans, and he’s rejected by the Arabs for working with the enemy — must fend for himself, and fend he does, with increasing alacrity.
From his tortured beginnings, he finds himself in business with a Gypsy dealing hashish and embarking on assassination missions. This seems to be part of director Jacques Audiard’s intent — and one could as easily make this statement about American prisons — to show how Malik enters a naive, young punk only to become expert in criminal enterprise. Not the kind of vocational training they had in mind.
Some of the film’s best scenes involve the ghost of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), the Arab witness who was Malik’s first victim. These visitations, which are matter-of-fact but ominous, at first play like we would expect them to: as manifestations of guilt and regret. But over time Malik seems to settle down with Reyeb in a way that is less haunted than reminiscent. As Malik’s horror at taking a life subsides, Reyeb becomes a companion in his cell and they settle into an easy rapport. The memory is no longer a burden. He remembers his victim with a tenderness, almost like a first love.
There aren’t too many of those spectral scenes; they jockey for position with a lot of minutiae about the crime world within the prison and without. The screenplay, by Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit, and director Audiard, juggles three or four race groups; at least as many syndicates, sub-syndicates, and hierarchies; assignments and counter-assignments; betrayals in the chain of command; and a cancer diagnosis. Over 155 sprawling minutes, it all becomes very tiresome, to the point where even the well staged action sequences — particularly impressive is a claustrophobic gunfight inside a vehicle — are just more details to add to the pile.
Malik’s character arc reminded me of Goodfellas’s Henry Hill, in the way some movies remind you of the movies you’d rather be watching: the initial naivete, the taste for power and influence, the hubris — though Malik is a much more reluctant gangster with much less romantic notions of himself and the people he works for. “Do you work for Luciani?” he’s asked repeatedly over the course of the film. “I work for myself,” he always answers, seeming too big for his britches, but eventually we have to agree that he has been working for himself all along. Audiard and Scorsese completely part ways, however, in where they take their stories of young criminals on the rise. Scorsese is moralistic, while Audiard is decidedly not. Henry Hill gets what’s coming to him. Malik does too, in a different way.
Que será, será.