What’s the one thing every rundown apartment that a college sophomore is sharing with his five best friends and every $30m mansion that a famous rapper lives in for five months out of the year have in common? The Scarface poster they have framed on the wall in the living room. There are a handful of gangster films that have become modern classics – The Godfather and Goodfellas being the other main two – but in recent years, Brian De Palma’s Scarface has really pulled ahead of the pack when it comes to pop culture relevance and awareness among a younger generation. Which kind of makes sense, seeing as The Godfather and Goodfellas are better-made films that deal with more mature themes and Scarface is the sort of empty, flashy nonsense that would appeal to young people and rappers. Really, at this point, should Scarface even be mentioned in the conversation of great modern gangster movies anymore? It’s got a lot of issues.
Jacques Audiard’s 2009 prison epic, Un prophète, isn’t necessarily underrated in the sense that the people who saw it didn’t like it, but it’s underrated in the sense that not nearly enough people, at least in the United States, have seen it. Here we have one of those rare films that is just artsy enough to be respected by film snobs and just entertaining enough to be enjoyed by more casual audiences that it could conceivably become a perennial top contender when it comes to widely agreed upon favorite movies of all time lists the way The Godfather, Goodfellas, or another prison movie like The Shawshank Redemption are.
What do they have in common?
Though Scarface and Un prophète are very different films in tone, they have a ton in common nonetheless; mostly due to similarities between their protagonists. Both of these movies are about a lowly punk who rises to the top of the criminal world. In Scarface, we’re watching Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino) rise through the Miami drug scene and in Un prophète it’s Malik el Djebena’s (Tahar Rahim) ascension through the isolated society of a French prison. Each guy enters into a new situation – from Cuba to America, and from freedom to imprisonment – with no connections and no prospects, but they both manage to thrive nonetheless. Each comes from an ethnic background that makes them a minority in their new situations. Each has to go through a violent baptism of fire in order to be accepted into their new criminal endeavors. And, heck, there’s even an indication that each of these guys have deep desires to be family men. Someone should introduce them. They might become best friends.
Why is Scarface overrated?
The most glaring examples of why Scarface just doesn’t hold up to its reputation of being one of the top-tier gangster movies is how cheesy and dated it looks to modern eyes, and how over the top Pacino is in the lead role. First, let’s cover Pacino. If you compare the scenery-chewing, broad work that he’s doing here to the subtle, more organic acting that he did in The Godfather, the difference is like night and day. And, good lord, whose idea was it to cast him as a Cuban anyway? Watching him try to play the strutting, Latino peacock can get downright comical. It’s almost like you can pinpoint his performance here as the moment he went from an impressive young actor to a showman who was believing his own hype, which eventually led to over the top turns like his role in Scent of a Woman, and then…everything he did that came after.
Now, let’s address the cheesiness. There’s a rise-to-the-top montage in this movie that’s every bit as corny and ’80s as the “You’re the Best Around” montage in The Karate Kid. The set design on this movie is like somebody crossed the Tech Noir set from The Terminator with the tacky mansion from Queen of Versailles and then hit it with the magic lightning bolt from Weird Science. Simply put, it’s very much of its time, and it serves as the setting for some ridiculous melodrama as well. I mean, that climactic scene where Montana’s sister is shooting at him that gets all incestuous? That’s some telenovela nonsense right there.
Which brings us to the writing. Scarface just isn’t very well-written. In addition to containing generically hard-boiled, tough guy dialogue, this movie is generally just too pointed in its storytelling and too free of any real drama or intrigue. Pacino speaks solely in showy monologues where he awkwardly spells all of the film’s themes out for you. The pacing of the narrative feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of his character’s life, where we hit all of the bullet points but nothing gets any focus. We don’t watch Montana struggle to make it to the top of the mountain, we just periodically check in on him while he gets there. We don’t understand what he had to sacrifice to get to where he goes, he mostly just seems fated to become the man. He says it, so it is. If you’re a 19-year-old with a rap career, that might seem pretty cool, but it’s not a very good way to tell a dramatic story.
Why is Un prophète underpraised?
The main thing that Un prophète has over a film like Scarface, and the reason it deserves to be more widely recognized, is that it tells a really great story. Rahim is playing a real character here, not a caricature like Pacino’s cartoonish drug lord. He’s an everyday guy from beginning to end, even after he’s risen to the top, and not only do we watch the step-by-step process of how he gets to where he goes, we’re with him every step of the way, sweating out the tense moments, feeling a thrill when one of his plans comes together, and actually rooting for him to succeed; not just waiting for the schadenfreude of watching him fall from the top. In Un prophète, the character gets the focus, not the spectacle surrounding him.
And there’s not a cheesy moment to be found in this movie. Quite the contrary, there are some scenes here that are deeply affecting, deeply disturbing, and that will stick with you long after the movie is over. Pacino’s trial by fire where he has to watch his buddy get chainsawed in Scarface is one of that film’s better moments, but Rahim’s big introduction to prison violence in this movie manages to beat it on every level. He’s sent to kill a fellow prisoner under the guise of serving him as a prostitute, and, suffice to say, things don’t go according to plan. He can’t keep a razor in his mouth without bleeding, things turn to a struggle, and Audiard turns the screws on the tension and ups the ante of the bloody gore until you want to jump out of your seat and leave the room. It’s awesome. And, I must say, the rise-to-the-top montage here is nothing to sneeze at either.
The other big thing this movie has going for it is the quality of its performances. If Scarface was the moment where Pacino started buying too much into his star mystique, Un prophète is the opposite for Rahim. This is his first big starring role, and the work he does here is the sort of authentic, affecting stuff that can compare with Pacino’s early work in The Godfather. He basically goes from being an unknown to a huge star over the course of this film’s run time, a transition that feels more than appropriate given the arc of his character. And, in addition to what Rahim does, Niels Arestrup is pretty dang good as the old boss that he works under and eventually rises up to challenge as well. He goes from projecting a bigger than life crime boss image to eventually showing cracks in his armor and becoming a vulnerable human being, and every moment of that transition ends up feeling right and playing as effective.
Evening the odds.
So, if Scarface gets more attention than it deserves due to its brash, cocky message appealing to young people, and Un prophète didn’t get released with the impact it should have because the English-speaking world is afraid of reading subtitles, what to do to right this wrong? Maybe we can start a sabotage campaign to replace all the copies of Scarface on store shelves with the 1932 version. People hate watching things in black and white. And, as for Un prophète, it would definitely seem like an English-language remake is in order. Maybe starring Anton Yelchin as the young kid and Robert De Niro as the settled in boss character? Somebody call David Fincher.
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