Death, damnation, spiritual hallucination, temptation, false freedom, torment; Jacques Audiard’s latest film, Un Prophete, is a classic prison movie. And like all good prison movies it is Faustian tragedy, just without belts.
Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that tragedy must arouse ‘fear and pity’ in the audience as we watch men ‘who are above the common level’ sink in to damnation. For Audiard this does not mean the intellectual or spiritual folly of a great academic, thinker or prince. It is, instead, a nineteen-year-old French Arab’s slow entanglement in to an inescapable life of crime, fear and violence.
Un Prophete follows the six year prison sentence of Malik El Djebena (played faultlessly by Tahar Rahim) and his journey from underdog to top dog. The prison setting is a perfect stage for classic tragedy – a claustrophobically small cast and circumscribed area are hallmarks of tragedy from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, through to Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s Othello. And in many ways the film follows a classic tragic arc – the hero is tempted by an immoral authority (the Corsican mafia); he chooses to undertake a transgressive acts in order to secure short term gain; he exercises his apparent freedom (during his release days), and yet is all the time haunted by the evidence of his own undoing . The challenge for Audiard is how to mark this prison narrative out from other, similar films.
The first way in which Un Prophete diverges from a simple corruption-of-the-innocent prison drama is through the film’s surreal scenes. Just as Marlowe’s Faustus is haunted by visions of the demon Mephastophilis and the seven deadly sins, El Djebena is haunted by a flame-fingered, slit-throated Arab. In sleep and awake El Djebena talks to his vision and hallucinates details from his future – the face of a deer, the flash of a wood from a car window. He is a prophet; but ironically a prophet without the self-knowledge to avoid his own downfall.
Secondly, through the politics of the prison itself, Audiard’s film creates a portrait of a racially, culturally and politically divided modern France. In one of the film’s early scenes we see El Djebena evade a series of questions concerning his race, religion and background. As an illiterate, non-practising French Arab who picks up the language of his Corsican prison-mates, Audiard’s hero seems to transcend above the rivalries and tensions of those around him. He speaks to the Muslims, he speaks to the Corsicans and during his release days he speaks to the French gangsters still at large. As one of the characters says, he straddles them all, without even hurting his balls. Through this character Audiard can therefore explore the changing nature of French criminality; as Sarkozy legislates to send Corsicans back home, the Egyptian and Arab Muslims increase in numbers and in sway.
However, while his religious, racial and cultural ambiguity can help Malik El Djebena slowly rise within the ranks of prison corruption, he cannot but heap a heavy wrath upon his head. It is El Djebena’s dramatic fall from grace that stops Un Prophete from being a great film. Instead of having the conviction to simply show the hero’s tense, unpredictable and anxious life inside a mafia-run prison, the second half of the film sees great gun battles, drug deals, car chases and Ocean’s Eleven-style heists. During his release days El Djebena attempts increasingly cinematic and unlikely crimes, undermining the film’s earlier fraught realism.
But perhaps these visits to the outside world are essential after all. For it is when El Djebena is outside prison; when he is bundled in to cars, having guns held to his head, having corpses stack up top of him and having mysterious parcels passed on to him by terrifying strangers that we come to realise the Faustian conclusion of the piece.
Once that initial, tragic line has been crossed El Djebena cannot ever go back. He will have to stay a criminal; he will have to stay in that world; he is trapped in his own deadly fate. As El Djebena walks out of prison, followed by three slow-moving, blacked out cars, it seems just as Mephastophilis warns Dr Faustus, “Where we are tortured and remain for ever./Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed/ In one self place; for where we are is hell.”