Complicity in Un Prophète

image from BFI

Jaques Audiard’s film Un Prophète has already received rave reviews, high accolades, comparisons to the Godfather, and the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Although there are warnings of some gruesome content, what gives the films its strength, and stomach-churning discomfort, is the complicity that Audiard forces upon the audience.

We see Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) first as he enters the grim prison, and throughout the film, although he begins to go outside, there is only one reference to his pre-criminal life, in a brief reference to childhood neglect.

What this means for the audience, then, is that we are immediately placed within a world without the moral code that applies to normal life. Audiard emphasizes the outsider status of prisoners as well as immigrants in France, but this perspective also forces the viewer, as part of the implicit compassion created by filming from Malik’s point of view, to root for the violent and cruel actions that ensure his survival.

By placing the audience in an amoral context, with an anti-hero who must, as we learn at the beginning of the film, kill or be killed, Audiard forces us to think about our role in a society that creates space for this necessary violence, which is naturally self-perpetuating, and our own instinctive reaction to his actions – we want the bursts of violence to be over quickly, but we must also squirm in acknowledging that without such behavior, death is the only possible alternative.

We are forced into the psychological reality of someone who, as a result of a small handful of misfortunes that could happen to anyone, is forced to live by a different set of rules if he would live at all.

Audiard’s genius here is to make us complicit in a fictional situation, which in turn reveals our true complicity in a society where there is, by virtue of its existence and moral structure, creates and maintains an amoral shadow.

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