A Prophet, the better Cool Hand Luke

There is a story told, if you are in the right circles, of an eccentric academic who, though himself a Christian theologian, once described Lenin as “the better Jesus”. Now, heretic that I am, I’m inclined to agree with the spirit of this proclamation even if I don’t quite understand what our eccentric academic meant. That spirit works for the French film A Prophet, recent winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. For A Prophet is a better Cool Hand Luke. I intend for that statement to resonate with the Christo-political statement of our eccentric academic. [Warning: Spoilers below the fold!]Cool Hand Luke has been praised by some as a exceptional Christ-figure film that moves past the trite formulas of the Christ-figure to actual act out Christology of a particularly Luthearan bent. A former professor of mine has described it as exemplifying the idea that Christ came to reject the Law and that the Law, regardless of how hard it presses down on Luke, cannot crush him as the Law. He went on to say that Luke remains free throughout the film – even, and perhaps especially so, at those points when he seems most controlled – citing the road tarring scene as the example of “radical subordination” or an outrunning of the Law. In that scene Luke and the rest of the chain gang are expected to tar a road on a incredibly hot summer day. The duty is meant to break the inmates, to make them work without pay and without joy, complete alienation. Yet, Luke convinces them to work even harder to finish the tarring way ahead of schedule allowing them then to enjoy the rest of the day just laying about. The inmates rise to the challenge and the warden is bested. The Christological themes should be obvious, aside from the kenotic aspect of Luke’s signature characteristic (“sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand”) there is the obvious failure, in teleological terms, of Luke to do much of anything besides create these little moments of freedom. This professor of mine described it as “apocalyptic”, saying that Luke became a wound in the order of things.

All fine and good, and of course the film remains a classic. Yet, even if Cool Hand Luke is able to transcend the usual Christ-figure cliches and reach actual Christology, this Lutheran and apocalyptic character means it does nothing more than put forward a rather mainstream theological view of what it means to be Christ. I don’t mean what it means to be Jesus Christ, the historical figure, but what it means to be Christ. Is it nothing but a sign of apocalypse, a sign which in the now can only be taken as a failure, or is possible that we may indeed be saved? This, perhaps, is what it means to say that Lenin was the better Jesus. And this is what I mean when I say that A Prophet is a better Cool Hand Luke.

At the beginning of the film the protagonist Malik El Djebena, the prophet of the title, is truly without nothing. Arriving at the prison at the age of 19 to serve 6 years for attacking a police officer, he has no one outside the prison to send him money, to visit him, and he has no one in prison he knows or can connect with. He is an Arab, so can’t connect with the white French and Corsican inmates, but not a practicing Muslim either and so outside that circle (to say nothing of the other groups that make up the prison). Unlike in Cool Hand Luke the Law is not at play via the institution. The institutions of the State are presented as merely one factor in the prison assemblage. In fact, when Malik tries to contact the warden after he is forced into a Corsican plot to kill another Arab, he finds out that the inmates themselves have set up their own internal power structure between the inmates and the State apparatus of the prison. In the world of A Prophet there are no gods nor masters, there is only a civil war between men.

Malik eventually does kill the Arab the Corscians want him to and this makes him “their Arab”, which he uses along with his ability to straddle the different groups within the prison. He literally becomes all things to all men throughout the film even as he tells them all honestly that he is only working for himself. Interestingly, he often has to let himself be threatened and physically beaten when he first enters into a new group, but always with the caveat that there is only so much beating he will take. It is this element, the honest portrayal of human suffering and, what is more, human resistance to that suffering that raises it beyond the beautiful poetry of Christian apocalyptic (can we see here a final synthesis between Barth and Milbank in apocalyptic, an emphasis on paradox that in the last instance determines both as obscuring the Christ event, future in as much as it is past?). In one scene Malik has, by purposely going against the conventions of the Islamic community, arranged a meeting with the Arabs and Muslims in the prison. The leader of the Islamic group accuses him of just wanting to use them and Malik responds, “What does it matter? As long as we’re both happy?” Malik then appeals to the generic element of humanity, he transcends the prison identities to touch on the human identity shared by them all, saying that he only wants what they want – comfort and happiness for his friends.

Against the obscure Christ of Cool Hand Luke the Arabic Christ of A Prophet chases out some victory in this world. He seeks to escape the walls of the prison, not to stand as a wound in the prison, but to explode that very power structure. To create a better life within the world, to rebel as much as one can, rather than to die for an ideal he seeks to live. Is this teleological? No, it is kairos.

14 thoughts on “A Prophet, the better Cool Hand Luke

  1. This sounds excellent, and I’m looking forward to seeing it—but can you say more about how it counts as exploding the prison system’s power structure to capitalize on it for your own well-being? I’m assuming from what you say that in rising above it, in carving out his niche, he even must occasionally exacerbate the normal antagonisms—or am I wrong? Does he manage to neutralize some of the forces of civil war in being “all things to all men”?

  2. In a sense he does, but in so far as he creates a situation where the most oppressive aspects of that civil war destroy themselves while he lives out “40 days and 40 nights” in the hole. What I am trying to express is that the movie is far more honest than your usual Christological movie precisely because he must, as a human being formed in a power structure, exacerbate and even accommodate the normal antagonisms. There is no Deus ex machina, only a human being struggling in the world.

  3. Nothing better than nailing the first film review before anyone else can see it.
    Malik = Freire’s Christ. Teaching himself Corsican? Brilliant!

  4. Coming to Chicago February 26!

    I feel like you saw The White Ribbon six months before I did. One wouldn’t think that physical proximity to Europe would make such a huge difference in when you get to see European films, in this age of globalization and container shipping.

  5. Finally got around to seeing this–great movie. Thanks for the reflection. The point about the lack of a Deus ex machina is well taken, although I haven’t seen Cool Hand. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he tells the Muslims that what he wants is what they want: happiness for him and his friends.

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