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Filmmakers create a genre unknown in France

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Prison Yard
Niels Arestrup (l) as gang leader Cesar and Tahar Rahim as Malik in "A Prophet."
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Unlike the U.S., France has no tradition of prison movies. 

So recently when a film opened in French cinemas about a young man trying to survive in a brutal Paris prison it electrified audiences.  It swept the French Academy Awards, the Cesars,  and it was nominated for the best foreign language Oscar.  

Now Minnesota audiences can see the movie, called "A Prophet," when it opens this weekend.  

It's hard to imagine, a celebrated film scene without prison movies, but that is the situation in which award-winning French film maker Jacques Audiard went to work.

"A jail movie in France, it doesn't exist," he said through a translator. "The last one was from the 50s or the 60s."

Audiard saw a prison movie as a great way to tell a story about the changes within contemporary France. 

The film makers
Thomas Bidegain, Tahar Rahim, and Jacques Audiard during their visit to the MPR studios
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"The prison will act like a magnifying lens on the social tension between groups," he said.

The tension Audiard examines is between two outsider groups in French society, the Corsicans, and the growing Arabic population from France's former north African colonies. 

"A Prophet" tells the story of Malik, a petty criminal, young, alone, and sentenced to a long term in a huge Paris prison. He quickly finds the real power in the jail rests not with the prison staff, but with brutal Corsican gangsters who run a criminal empire from their cells. 

Malik is half Corsican but he's also half Arab. This initially draws contempt from the gang lords. Then the gang realizes Malik could be useful in silencing an Arab informant. 

They order Malik to kill the man. 

"The prison will act like a magnifying lens on the social tension between groups."

Newcomer Tahar Rahim plays Malik. He said it was hard to shoot such a brutal scene. 

"I mean the murder scene, after the shooting, I had something in my body, a mood in my body for three days," he said.      It's hard to watch, which director Audiard said is by design.

"What I can't stand to see in movies any more is death represented so easily, so lightly," he said. "You have to show it's always disgusting, it's always tough."

The murder sets Malik off on a new lucrative career within the Corsican gang, but as time passes the prison population changes. 

The Corsican numbers dwindle as they complete their sentences. They lose their grip on the prison, and the growing Arabic population asserts itself. Malik has to adapt.  

Thomas Bidegain, who wrote the screenplay with Audiard, said Malik has an unusual ally: the ghost of the man he killed.

"Unlike other gangsters, when he kills someone, he has to carry that weight. He has a conscience, and he has to carry the guilt, the weight of the person he has killed, he has to carry it physically on his back," Bidegain said. "So the guy is around, he will live with him, he would be like a cellmate of some sort, a curious ghost."

Bidegain said the ghost becomes strangely supportive. It also supplies moments of light relief in a very intense plot.

Ghostly visit
Hichem Yacoubi (l) plays Reyeb, an informer Malik is ordered to kill. After the murder Reyeb comes back as a ghost who at times helps the man who killed him.
Image courteswy Sony Pictures Classics

It took Bidegain and Audiard three years to write the script for "A Prophet." They based it on an existing screenplay, but said it took that long to mold Malik into a sympathetic character. 

Bidegain said it also took time because French audiences ideas about jail are often the result of seeing U.S. prison dramas like "Oz" and "Prison Break."

"And we had to adapt it to a French reality," he said."   

Even with a cast of unknowns, when "A Prophet" did open in France, it broke like a tsunami. The film makers say audiences were wowed simply by an Arabic central character.  

The film also drew accolades for it's gritty reality, which amuses Audiard. Given the lack of information or interest in the French penal system until the film came out, he wonders how people can tell the movie is realistic. 

"Is that their way of confessing they have spent five years in jail?" he said.

        Now Audiard is intrigued how "A Prophet" will do in the U.S. While the best foreign language film Oscar went elsewhere, the early reviews for "A Prophet" seem to bode well.