Like a darker version of Shawshank
A man enters a prison to serve a long sentence. He gets a shocker of a start as encounters a brutal world, governed by an order of its own. After some tough lessons he adapts to the life inside the prison wall and develops a strategy for survival. He’s biding his time….
Which movie am I thinking of? It could be The Shawshank Redemption. But this time it’s another one I have in mind, the French prison movie A Prophet. Have you heard of it? You might have since it got an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film in 2010. But even with that attention I doubt it has reached an audience as wide as Shawshank’s. It’s too black, too long (2,5 hours, of which I think at least 20 minutes could have been shaved off without any loss) and too brutal, making Shawshank appear kind of War Horsey cute in comparsion.
Hope vs cynicism
Normal, sane people don’t think that a movie is better the more cynical, gritty and ambiguous a movie is. It’s easy to forget when you spend a lot of time in the cinephile circles in the blogosphere, but I assure you that’s how it is. Normal people don’t look for confirmation in movies that the world sucks. They look for something that brings them hope and inspiration to live on their lives. They want something that reinforces the idea that the world is comprehensible and that good deeds eventually will be rewarded, either this is true or not.
A Prophet is nothing of this. It shows more or less the opposite approach to prison life to Shawshank’s. The idea of playing opera music to his fellow convicts wouldn’t cross the mind of the 19 year old Malik. If he’s going to build anything, it’s rather a drug distribution chain than a library, which I think is a scenario that is far closer to what it is in reality. Prisons of this sort aren’t places for rehabilitation. They’re schools where they offer higher education in crime.
No religious leader
Finally a word about the title: “A Prophet”. This name obviously is referring to the main character, and there is a scene in the movie towards the end which explains why he gains this nickname. But this doesn’t mean that the boy literally is a prophet! I know you shouldn’t take IMDb’s user comments too seriously, but I was a little bit baffled when I saw it suggested that he goes through a spiritual journey and that what we’re seeing isn’t the birth of a criminal, but the birth of a spiritual man and a future religious leader. With all the respect for different opinions and interpretations, I saw a completely different movie.
Anyway: provided you can set off the time and you can stand watching a few very violent scenes (think Drive level), I think this is a very good movie and definitely on my top10 list of prison movies where you also would find movies such as The Shawshank Redemption (sic!) and Dead man walking. But I reckon that’s the topic for another post.
A Prophet (Un prophète, Jacques Audiard, FR, 2009) My rating: 4/5