The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Like a darker version of Shawshank

with 13 comments

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

Written by Jessica

March 2, 2012 at 12:51 am

13 Responses

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  1. Glad you took to A Prophet! It’s one of my favourite films, and definitely for many good reasons.

    Though I wouldn’t put it on the level of Shawshank (not a fan of that film), it’s nice to read more positive comments about A Prophet, even 2 years after I’ve seen it!


    March 2, 2012 at 1:07 am

    • I watched Shawshank for the first time (don’t ask me how I’ve been able to avoid it) in the autumn and I really liked it. But this is an altogether different take on the same matter. I honestly wouldn’t feel inclined to rank one or the other above the other. I think it depends a bit on my mood. In the need for harshness or for hope?


      March 2, 2012 at 8:40 am

  2. Absolutely loved this movie. I’ve been a fan of Jacques Audiard for some time and I think this might be my favorite film of his.

    Dave Enkosky

    March 2, 2012 at 3:52 am

    • I can’t say I’m familliar with him. But I really liked it. I also liked the little artistic tweaks in it that made it stand out from more generic prison films.


      March 2, 2012 at 8:37 am

  3. Haha, I definitely think we should establish “war horsey” as a new adjective 🙂


    March 2, 2012 at 6:10 am

    • Yep. How many mentionings do you think it takes before it gets an entry in a dictionary?


      March 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

  4. Had this on my watchlist for a while now, Shawshank is my fave movie. need to see this now

    • Well, again, don’t expect a Shawshank, because the approach is way different. But I think it’s interesting to compare them. I look forward to see what you make of it!


      March 2, 2012 at 9:23 am

  5. One of my favorites from 2009 but i have a weakness for the prison genre. I can recommend Felon with Val Kilmer.


    March 4, 2012 at 11:38 am

  6. Awesome prison drama. Tahir Raham is incredible as the protagonist and I loved some of the little things he did like when he was outside prison and went through airport security (I think?), he still did the routine he had in prison, like opening his mouth to show nothing was hidden in there. Glad you liked it Jessica!


    March 6, 2012 at 3:18 am

    • Yes, that was a wonderful detail. And yes, I agree about the acting. Absolutely convincing. The thing that I didn’t quite get the “prophet” thing didn’t bother me at all. I saw it as a prison movie and it was a good one.


      March 6, 2012 at 7:23 am

  7. Really a great movie, which I liked a lot. The main character is played so well. I like the scene at the airport and they are checking him and he automatically moves his tongue around to show he’s not hiding there. The final scene reminded me of The Godfather.


    March 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    • Frankly it’s been too long since I watched The Godfather. Is the scene a reference from it? I bet it might have been. I didn’t notice.


      March 22, 2012 at 4:57 pm

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