'A Prophet': France faces its forgotten prisons
Film noir 'A Prophet' and photo exhibit put France’s crowded prisons on view.
"A Prophet," a sometimes violent and dark prison-genre film, was the talk of French cinema last fall. It opened up the world of ethnic gangs in French prisons, not a typical theme. En route to its current release in the United States, it was selected here as the French Oscar nomination this year.Skip to next paragraph
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The film's cast is made up of mostly unknown actors, and it is hailed for bringing new blood to the French film noir tradition. Director Jacques Audiard hired inmates as consultants and extras, and took special care to render authentic settings, sound, and atmosphere as Corsican gangs are depicted having it out with an Islamist group in a prison outside Paris.
Beyond being hailed for its cinematic virtues, the film's realism in depicting notoriously overcrowded and violent French prisons was so affecting that it drew public comment by French politicians, including Fadéla Amara, minister in charge of French suburbs or banlieues, who hoped it would not romanticize crime figures in the way the 1983 American film "Scarface" did.
At the same time, an exhibit on prison photography opened at the Museum of the History of Paris (Musée Carnavalet, until July 10) that also draws aside a curtain on a prison world that has long been shrouded here.
The title, "Impossible Photography, Parisian Prisons (1851-2010)," says much about the difficulty of access. It took 18 months for permission to open the doors of the Prison de la Santé in Paris to photographers. "The idea of the exhibit was to show how hard it is to depict the reality of the prison in pictures, showing different angles and points of view," says curator Catherine Tambrun. "The reason for the official reluctance is the fact that the Santé is very old and dilapidated, as it was built in 1867."
The film and exhibit go a long way toward exposing the dark and claustrophobic universe of French prisons. In the 1960s, when President Charles de Gaulle's justice minister painted a bleak picture of overcrowding, decay, and violence in the Republic's prisons, the president allegedly quipped, "It's a good thing they can escape!" In report after report since then, it seems little has changed.
"A Prophet" tells the story of Malik, a young, illiterate, Arab petty delinquent who enters jail as a nobody and exits as an underworld boss. With no known links to the outside world, he eventually finds a family, of sorts, in jail.
First he finds the fatherly – and abusive – figure of César Luciani, a Corsican gangster whose crew bosses the prison. César orders Malik to kill Reyeb, an Arab who is going to testify against him. Malik doesn't have a choice, and for rest of the film the strangely benevolent ghost of Reyeb visits Malik in his cell.