Thursday, 18 February 2010

A Prophet: "the new Scarface for the banlieues"?

Malik must kill or be killed. He slips a razor blade between his jaw and the flesh of his cheek. As he does so, you can hear the sound of steel scratch the enamel of his teeth. He tries to hold the blade in his mouth but starts to gag. He spits it out. He tries again. Fails. With greater care, he eases the blade into place. He holds it for a brief moment and then spits it into a basin, his teeth stained with blood. In this scene, performance, sharpness of editing and sound effects all fuse in the hands of the French director, Jacques Audiard, to create three minutes of pulse-racing claustrophobia and tension. With such unflinching attention to detail it's clear that A Prophet is no Shawshank Redemption. This is a prison film with all the Holywood gloss and consoling sentiment stripped bare to reveal the concrete and bars of a penal system gone rotten.

From the minister of justice to former inmates, A Prophet was widely praised for providing a grainy snapshot of the French prison system. But the film is more than just an accomplished piece of "social noir". A Prophet has existential ambitions. Through the main characters, it explores how we inhabit our actions and choices; how a person's moral identity is revealed in their actions. Who I am and how I act are intrinsically linked. And when our consciences are undeveloped, morally infantile or conditioned by vice, we struggle to act in ways that express the truth about our personal dignity and that of others. Our moral sense is dulled and we are left morally stunted. With these interests in mind, the immoral content of A Prophet exhibits a moral purpose.

The film opens with the nineteen year old Malik (the unknown Tahar Rahim giving a mesmerising, raw performance) beginning a six year prison sentence. In this brutal environment, his immediate moral horizons shrink. It is not only the prison walls that restrict the moral view, but the resident Corsican godfather who has both inmates and prison staff in his pay. However, other, unexpected horizons expand: Malik learns to read and write; to use his intelligence and charm; to understand that the power structures around him are maleable and based on fragile codes of loyalty and friendship.

Malik begins to play the system, using the prison market economy (with its currency of drugs and prostitution) and his Arabic origins to move between different ethnic camps within the prison. Slowly, he begins to acquire his own power base. Audiard is keen to emphasise that though Malik is influenced by the demoralised society around him, nonetheless his actions remain freely chosen and he is responsible for them. He becomes an unstoppable force of immorality, choosing deception over truth; violence over compassion; using those around him as a means rather than an end. Of his own making, he becomes the Lord of death and destruction.

But Audiard is not only interested in charting Malik's will-to-power. He captures Malik's interior life, his conscience, "the most secret core and sanctuary of man". Audiard achieves this by visualising Malik's "prophetic" premonitions and by his being haunted by his first victim, Reyeb, who exhales cigarette smoke from the razor blade slit in his throat. John Henry Newman pointed out that the noble name of conscience can be debased into "a liberty of self-will". Given the right conditions and a docile acceptance of such debasement, the conscience can be corrupted with ease and speed. Malik is an example of this.

A Prophet is a film of questions rather than answers. Audiard (who also wrote the screenplay) asks if it is possible for morality to survive when the social group or society we live in has become degraded? We can see what our actions achieve, but how do we judge what our actions mean? Are there ways in which we can protect the voice of conscience from the white noise of moral relativism? In a moral dark age, who can claim to be a prophet?

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