I am a sucker for crime movies, and Un Prophete is reportedly one of the best. My report is, yes it is. I was watching Jay-Z on the Daily Show and he said what people primarily relate to in art is the emotions underneath (I love my mother, hate my father, etc). Despite the vulgarity of the subject matter, I think that is the value of the crime story as parable. Despite how civilized we think we are, life for humans has historically been tough and crime films are one way to access that archetypical (per Campbell) image of hero as someone who struggles. Doing things the right was is a struggle, but not in as much of a ‘Me Against The World’ sense. In seeing people that do wrong, sometimes that hero is more clearly defined. Plus I like the vulgarity.
Un Prophete is a French film about a young Arab man in jail. In this case jail serves as a sort of Criminal MBA and he emerges as a somewhat soft Don. In a broader sense, the story is captivating because it very closely hews to what Joseph Campbell calls the monomyth. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
He calls separation, initiation and return the nuclear unit of the monomyth. More generally, as per Wikipedia
The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).
Un Prophete is remarkably faithful to this path. The young man Malik is sentenced to 6 years for assaulting a policeman or something. He is 19 and we travel with him on the bus to jail. There, he has his shoes stolen, is propositioned for sex and then targeted by the Corsican mob to take out a hit on the very man who propositioned him. Using a razor blade concealed in his mouth. We can intensely feel Malik’s (literally) bloody mouthed nauseau as he contemplates and then does this act. This is the call to adventure. In the course of facing this challenge he is given a boon. The dead man haunts him for the rest of the film. Though haunting isn’t the right word. They converse as friends.
From there, he becomes the coffee boy to the Corsicans, but he takes the time to educate himself and learn Corsican. Over time he begins right hand man to the Corsican leader, one that the leader doesn’t hesitate to attack in the eye with a spoon, however. Being Arab monkey boy to the Corsicans he isn’t trusted by the Muslim gangs or the Italians, but when most of the Corsicans are released, he has to give more responsibility. Malik is sent on furloughs out of the prison (which is corrupt) to basically carry messages and get guns pointed at his head and, along the way, start his own drug running business. These are his tasks, which get progressively more and more fucked up.
This is different from many crime dramas, however, in that it is not glamorized. The lead character is something of a savant blank slate, like Peter Sellers in Being There, except with a gun, razor blade and cellular phone. He remains in jail till the very end and the only true pleasure he seems to get is from dipping his feet in the sea. He remains, through it all, childlike and not reveling in crime like Scarface but merely trying to survive on a personal level. This is something like Jackie Chan in his Shinjuku Incident and every unwilling hero from Frodo to most instances of Harrison Ford.
Throughout it all, he keeps having these dreamy excuses with the dead guy who is able to predict stuff going on outside the window. This dead man seems to embody some power of inner vision that once enables Malik to predict an event which saves his life, hence the name ‘A Prophet’. Throughout it all Malik is given boons of large amounts of hash and money and the last scene in the film is the best embodiment of the hero coming back with boons to bestow on his fellow man. I won’t reveal it, but it is one of the funniest, sweetest and yet most morally suspect moments I have seen in modern film.
In short, I think Un Prophete is a great film. If you can buy it and watch a decent copy please do. Being in Sri Lanka, this is not really an option, so I streamed it from Megavideo (Part 1) and WiseVid (Part 2). This is basically illegal, but what are you going to do. Following this prophet, you sometimes have to do illegal things to see.