At first, the French prison young Malik El Djebana (Tahar Rahim) is sent to seems strangely civilized, at least in comparison to its American counterpart. Prisoners are given individual cells, the showers have stalls, and the bread — long and crusty — is plentiful. But that’s before Malik is forced by a Corsican mobster named César (Niels Arestrup) to murder another inmate with a razor blade, an educated Muslim about to testify in open court. In short order, Malik, who initially tries to avoid the situation, kills the Muslim, becomes a sort of man servant to the Corsicans, and slowly begins the process of educating himself — not just to the reading books and language skills of his prison classes, but also to the way of the prison yard, and, more significantly, how men with power dispatch their business.
Malik’s initial sentence is for six years. The film jumps forward in the timeline from time to time, but in director Jacques Audiard’s capable hands, the film subtlely suggests Malik’s slow progress and transformation more than announces it. So close to the vest is Malik, despite the tantalizing dream/fantasy sequences Audiard slips into the narrative, that he becomes as difficult for us to read as for César, who suspects his young would-be protégé of running side deals, but can’t quite pin down his true intentions until they are already in play.
The film also plays with the idea of religious conversion. Though Malik claims no specific set of beliefs — and, indeed, spends much of the film avoiding the Muslims in prison, while being referred to endlessly as a “dirty Arab” by his Corsican colleagues — he is also gifted with a limited sort of prophecy, though rather than utilizing it for the betterment of mankind, he uses it as a method of better ingratiating himself with another set of criminals. He is loathe to assume identity with any one group (“I work for myself,” he explains more than once), in order to play them off of each other as fits his needs at a given time.
With its documentary-like handheld camera shots and deeply rich tones, Audiard has made a fierce and convincing testament to the power of moral extremity. The film runs as a kind of addendum to another excellent (albeit more intentionally lyric) prison flick, The Shawshank Redemption, specifically when a character suggests that it was only in prison that he became a successful criminal. Rather than Andy Dufresne’s using the system against itself in order to broker his freedom, Malik emerges as a master of the system itself. We know very little about Malik before he was sent away, but six years later, the reticent, unassuming young man he was is replaced by an altogether more conniving and diabolical individual. The prison systems might be moderately different in different countries, but the results seem painfully similar.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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