There can be many motifs, themes, and symbolisms identified in the complicated and almost messy film Un Prophète by Director Jacques Audiard (2009), but none is perhaps more salient than the politics of identity and prison power relations. The entire film itself focuses on the prison life of young Malik El Djebena who was all of a sudden thrown into the dirty power struggles in prison and amongst various ethnic groups. Indeed, the intricate power relations of prison and identity in the film all symbolize at the micro-level the larger social realities of contemporary French society and the experiences of the people in France as they negotiate social boundaries within the state that has been increasingly assimilative of immigrant groups and other out-groups.
Malik El Djebena is a mysterious and clueless 19-year-old boy sentenced into prison for six years for reasons not directly identifiable from the film but may be interpreted as charges of attacking policemen, for which he was accused as he was being interviewed by a prison officer before actually entering his cell. In a scene that appears to be an interview for prison classes, Malik reveals some important telling facts about his life before becoming an inmate. Having had no parents to raise him, Malik spent his childhood at an unspecified youth center until he was 11 years old, at which point he left the center without learning sufficient skills to read and write. When asked by the interviewer about his mother tongue or at least the language he spoke first, Malik does not know whether he spoke French or Arabic first. He simply answers that he spoke both. Tracing this through the lenses of psychology (Smith, Nolen-Hoeksema, Fredrickson, & Loftus, 2003), this may mean that in his early toddler years Malik was already exposed to groups that spoke both French and Arabic – either a combination of French and Arabic groups or a simple immigrant Muslim group in France. In any case, this means that Malik was most probably born in France and that, more importantly, he was exposed even at an early age to Muslim communities in the country.
The internal struggle and self-negotiation within the character of Malik El Djebena is important and salient especially in the arena of the sociological theoretical perspective of symbolic interaction. In truth, the characterization of Malik’s persona narrates the larger ongoing negotiations of Muslim culture and identity within the French society. The Muslim community in France is the largest in Western Europe, constituting five to six million or 8-9.6% of 62.3 million French citizens in 2004 by estimates of the French government (BBC News, 2005). Around 70% of this Muslim community traces its heritage to the French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in North Africa (BBC News, 2005), spelling a high probability that Malik’s inmate nickname amongst the Corsicans – “the Arab” – is in fact a misnomer and that Malik is in fact more likely to be of North African descent. Ergo, the symbolism of Malik’s confused persona here is more or less clear: In the same way that Malik El Djebena has to come to terms with his own Muslim identity as he faces the might of the French prison, ethnic discrimination from the Corsicans, and the anger and disapproval of his own Muslim brothers, many Muslims in France today have to come to terms with their own identity as they face the pretentiously tolerant but merely assimilative French state, the increasing xenophobia amongst various groups in French society, and even the pressure of extremist Muslim forces in France (Noiriel, 1996).
As seen in the film, Malik had been initially detached from his Muslim identity most especially during his long-time slavery under the Corsican prisoners but eventually let himself be absorbed into the Muslim community. His allegiance with the Muslim prisoners towards the end of the film through his charitable donation to an imam (Islam priest) may appear sudden and unexpected at first but, once thoroughly analyzed, his allegiance was in fact a process – a negotiation within himself and a long and difficult formation of his own integrity as he spent years in prison. Throughout the narrative, Malik was exposed to kindness from Muslim individuals such as Reyeb who treated Malik kindly before Malik was forced to murder him. In fact, Reyeb was one of the first people who actually showed interest and care for Malik, promising to leave Malik his books so he can learn to read. Malik was so attached to Reyeb that he kept fantasizing about Reyeb’s existence, imagining Reyeb as his only confidante in the chaos and secrets of prison life. There was also, of course, Ryad who eventually became his business partner and his closest and most reliable friend. Malik found himself caring so much for Ryad that Malik even promised to adopt Ryad’s family after Ryad’s death as soon as Malik left prison. Aside from the kindness of his Muslim brothers, Malik was also exposed to discrimination from the Corsican prisoners who treated Malik like their slave and even forced Malik under a death threat to murder Reyeb. Malik may have therefore attached discrimination against the Muslims to the Corsicans who hated him as well, allowing for sympathy towards the Muslims. If only none of these factors were present, Malik may have continued to live without any identity or sense of belongingness to a community, having had no such concept at the beginning of the film. For example, if only the Corsicans sympathized with Malik and treated him kindly, Malik may have become more attached to the Corsican than the Muslim identity. Such experiences of Malik therefore may have fueled the process of his growing sympathy with the Muslim community.
Malik El Djebena, of course, was only one persona in the film and depicted only the confusion and negotiations of Muslims in the French society. Looking at the larger power relations going on in the film, we see as well the power struggles and negotiations of the in-prison Corsican mafia led by Caesar Luciani. The political history of Corsica, an island outside mainland France and nearer to Italy than France, is replete with occupations by various forces beginning with the Carthagians but its more modern and therefore more recent memory of colonization is marked by the political negotiations between Italy and France. Corsica was ruled by the Italian Republic of Genoa from the 1400s to the 1700s (BBC News, 2011). An independent Corsican republic was founded in 1755 by nationalists, but the island was ceded to France by purchase in 1769 (BBC News, 2011). Today, Corsica is a territorial collectivity and one of the least developed regions of France (BBC News, 2011). Its culture is also closer to Italian than French, with its language being linguistically similar with Italian and the existence of mafia families in the island (Nundy, 1993). The Corsicans therefore, with their Italian-influenced culture, have to come to terms with the various impositions of rule under the French state which continuously fails to understand the special needs of the Corsican people. This has led to a violent separatist movement in Corsica (BBC News, 2011).
Unlike the Muslims, however, the Corsicans in the film depict a success story in the beginning of the narrative. Through negotiations with the corrupted French prison system, Caesar Luciani leads a well-connected Corsican mafia spoiled by the prison guards. Unlike other prisoners, the Corsicans are allowed several liberties such as outside communication and the freedom to bully and dominate other groups in prison without punitive measures. The Corsicans, however, eventually face defeat as the Muslim community in prison grew in number and began to dominate the politics in prison particularly through Malik El Djebena’s eventual betrayal against Caesar Luciani. The defeat was also, quite ironically, fueled by the pardon ordered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Corsicans, seeing them merely as political prisoners under the growing tension between the Corsican separatist movement and the French state. Here, again, we see the connection between social and political realities and the prison politics portrayed in the film.
Finally, the film also alludes to the increasingly relevant issue of corruption within the machinations of the French government. Cited by Ezra Suleiman in 1994, the French civil service, formerly a bastion of efficiency and impressively professional bureaucracy, faces criticisms as it is eaten by politicization and problems of corruption. This is particularly important in the depiction of the French prison in the film. Clearly portrayed as a total institution – an institution of social isolation and administrative manipulation (Macionis, 2005) – the prison was trembling into corruption and bias to the powerful groups inside it. Elements of its character as a total institution were shown in the film through a regularized diet for prisoners, regularized recreational periods and areas, and even Malik’s forced stripping of his clothes and property before entering the prison. However, alluding to reality, the prison guards were depicted to have tendencies to support the Corsican mafia, for example, which had a powerful network outside the prison walls. Ergo, even the French prison has to deal with its own negotiations with the various groups existing within its walls and is, in fact, pressured to maintain its integrity despite the strength of forces subject to it. The French prison can therefore be seen as a symbolism of the larger French state, which has to come to terms with its growing Muslim community, the Corsican mafias and separatist movement, and even its own depleting and crumbling integrity in the face of politicization and corruption.
In synthesis, therefore, the narrative within the film not a narrative isolated from the larger social contexts within which the film was made. The clear social realism within the film has unavoidably turned its fictional narrative into a social and political depiction and critique of French society and politics. The salience of the film as a product of political socialization is undeniable and cannot be ignored. Indeed, as was made clear by this film, the political values and realities of the larger social context inevitably affect filmmaking.
BBC News. (2005, December 23). Muslims in Europe: Country Guide. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4385768.stm
BBC News. (2011, April 28). Regions and territories: Corsica. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/3028038.stm
Macionis, J. (2005). Society: The Basics. US: Prentice Hall.
Noiriel, G. (1996). The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nundy, J. (1993, August 25). Corsican guerrillas take on Mafia: The nationalists demanding independence from Paris have a new aim, writes Julian Nundy in Ajaccio: tackling organised crime. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/corsican-guerrillas-take-on-mafia-the-nationalists-demanding-independence-from-paris-have-a-new-aim-writes-julian-nundy-in-ajaccio-tackling-organised-crime-1463291.html
Smith, E. E., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Fredrickson, B., & Loftus, G. R. (2003). Atkinson & Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology (14th ed.). Australia: Thomson & Wadsworth.
Suleiman, E. (1994). Presidentialism and Political Stability in France. In J. Linz, & A. Valenzuela (Eds.), The Failure of Presidential Democracy, Volume 1: Comparative Perspectives (pp. 137-162). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Juan Carlo Tejano
A 19 year old Arab boy gets imprisoned for attacking a police officer. Upon his entry, the battle between morality and survival begins as Malik receives a killing order from the Corsican Mafia in exchange of protection and his own place in the prison hierarchy. He is an antihero who murdered his own race, sought revenge on the Corsican gang and became a mafia boss himself.
A Prophet is a film about the corruption of French society manifested through its penal system. France proclaims itself as “Le Pays des droits de l’Homme” (the country of human rights) when extreme cases of xenophobia is present in their everyday lives. One issue presented in this film is the discrimination against the Arabs, evident in the racist remarks of the Corsicans. Malik, an Arab man considered to be part of their clique who is treated otherwise, and is made to do the dirty job fit for his race. He serves them food, cleans their cells and follows them around like a dog, yet he is consistently a target of racism. At one point, Malik tries to imitate their words, “fucking Arab shit”, insulting his own people. He is presented with the dilemma of embracing his Arab identity in the expense of his survival inside the prison. While running errands for the Luciani, he lingers long enough at the sight of the Muslims praying, suggesting his desire to do the same. However, there is a time when the Arabs insulted him as a pig for enslaving himself to the Corsicans. It is difficult to establish his allegiance to both races as it is often inconsistent.
But what is Malik el Djebena identity? Could we blame him for killing his fellow Arab in a total institution devoid of morality? The social norms no longer apply in a system that is filled with cold blooded criminals. The rules have changed: kill or get killed. And this is exactly how a powerful mafia boss threatened a newbie petty criminal. Of course, the need to live would outweigh the moral implications of murdering a man. Especially when Malik is confused of his identity, it is easy for him to give himself at the disposal of the gang. However, throughout the movie, his allegiance to both races can become confusing to the audience as he starts learning how to read with his fellow Arabs. This is further complicated by his companionship with Ryad and servitude to Luciani. His allegiance to the Arabs and Corsicans is conflicted throughout his 6 year sentence. I think that his loyalty to a particular race is a self-serving means of being at the right side of the fight at the right time. His identity remains as vague as his dreams and “visions” of the future.
The penal system is created to protect the society from the criminals who pose threat to the lives of its citizens. However, it must also be correctional for the reformation and rehabilitation of the prisoners for their future reintegration to the society.
However, this is not the case in the film. This institution has dehumanized Malik starting from the humiliating full body inspection upon his entry to the prison. He even brings this routine in the airport as a security guard inspects his body. His crime was not established concretely and remained vague until he killed a man. How would we know if he was a random person in the street who was taken advantage of the police? The answer is no longer important for the very institution tasked to turn him into a better citizen, introduced his innocent young mind to the brutalities of the world. It is not only the police who turn blind on the crimes happening inside the prison, but also the lawyers who represent their clients for financial reasons alone. The entire penal system is perpetuating a culture of violence and breeds corrupted felons.
The transformation of Malik comes in full circle when he murdered the leader of the mafia and his men in broad daylight. A moment of distraction on a luxurious pair of shoes in a window of a store, shows the reluctance of Malik to carry on the deed. However, his face instantaneously turned cold and dark, filled with murderous intent. Without mercy, he blew up the brains of the men and used their bodies as shield as he went for his final kill. This shows the effect of the institution of the prison and its ability to dehumanize people. It corrupts the morality and belief systems governing an individual and transforms him in a state of anarchy, who lives by the rules of the day.
However, the corruption of the Malik is a learning process. Entering a dangerous world filled with criminals and not knowing how to survive is definitely terrifying for a petty criminal like Malik. He killed a man who showed kindness and introduced education to him. His conscience keeps him company in the form of Reyeb. As he gain experience on the drug trade in prison, his autonomy from Luciani and his gang increased, allowing him to build his connections with other inmates. His deception skills reached at its peak when he got the trust of both the leaders of the warring factions. From the blade in his bloody mouth, he now kills without remorse. Reyeb ceases to exist after his transformation from the 19-year old boy to a fully-pledged mafia boss.
“A Prophet” is an award winning film not only because of its harrowing story but also because of Jacques Audiard’s ability to captivate his audience and place them inside his film. The heaviness of the conscience of Malik before he kills Reyeb transcends the screen and fills the entire room. The whole class is writhing in their seats as they struggle in the frame that could barely contain them. The tones of the entire film are in blue or gray giving off a depressing vibe to the film. Furthermore, the violence is overpowering as the bloody images remain with the audience.
- Victoria Tiangco