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Sacrifice and the Dream of Form

A Prophet (Un prophète), 2009, a film by Jacques Audiard – 

…in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.

Beowulf —  Trans: Seamus Heaney

A culture like ours, rooted in the worship of a man whose hands and feet have been nailed to beams of wood, should be open to possible links between violence and the sacred. And yet in recommending A Prophet (Un prophète), the prison noir by Jacques Audiard that won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year, I feel compelled to warn you about scenes of violence in the film. A Prophet is not a movie for the faint of heart. But part of what’s refreshing about the film is how it treats human violence with depth and integrity, rewarding our attention with some valuable insights.

There’s a premeditated murder early in A Prophet that is particularly harrowing. The protagonist, Malik, a prisoner of French-Arab descent, visits the cell of another Arab prisoner, an informant named Reyeb, for a sexual exchange. Malik arrives with a disposable razor blade concealed in his mouth and we have seen him coached by members of the Corsican mob on how to transfer this razor to his teeth, where it can be used to sever Reyeb’s jugular vein. Malik himself will surely be killed if he fails in his mission, and his visceral fear of the Corsicans overrides any compassion for his victim, whom he scarcely knows. The murder when it comes is brutal and messy, but Audiard has also given it the disturbing intimacy of a sacrificial rite.  As James Joyce famously wrote about the tragic effect, pity and terror here combine to “arrest” our minds, uniting them with the sufferer, but also with the secret cause of the suffering.

In many ways the subject of the film is the odd intimacy that now develops between Malik and his victim. As the story unfurls, Reyeb returns in ghostly form, seeming to confer almost magical powers on the forlorn Malik. Malik begins to display remarkable talents as he navigates the power structure of the prison. Tutored by the Corsican gangster in charge of things, Malik forges alliances with Arab gangs on the outside. After a second spasm of violence, he takes control of the entire enterprise.

Violence on screen, or in any other art form, is upsetting. Adrenalin flows, our breathing turns shallow. It’s impossible to argue with people who don’t embrace to such material…unless it’s a pretext for a more general philistinism. From Homer to Sarah Kane, great art tends to wound us in one way or another. Moreover, our staggering gift for violence is perhaps our defining feature as a species, so it’s hard to know what is being served by avoiding its representation in art. If executed effectively and with integrity, depictions of violence offer glimpses of mysteries that return us to our lives in a more vital and urgent way. In scenes throughout A Prophet, the camera hovers close to Malik as he ponders such mysteries, as do we, rooted to our seats in the movie theater.

This unnerving dimension of human violence, has been explored in depth by the French cultural anthropologist Rene Girard. The author of the seminal Violence and the Sacred, Girard does not flinch from large ideas. His central thesis is that at a certain stage in their development all human communities faced an impending apocalypse of inter-clan violence, and that this blood feud is the terrifying monster vanquished symbolically in every myth (see the Beowulf quote above). Salvation arrived in the scapegoat mechanism, the sacrifice of the Pharmakos in Athens, for example, who would then be worshiped for his very real contribution to the survival of the community. So violent are we as a species, Girard believes, that those cultures which failed to stumble upon the scapegoat mechanism were wiped out in a storm of contagious tit-for-tat killings – the depravity of Rwanda or Bosnia played out to the bitter end.

It would take a very long post to unpack all the evidence Girard marshals and all the implications of his thesis. To Girard our violence is “mimetic,” by which he means it springs from competition for social roles, which are inherently plastic and adoptable. For me, given my engagement with Buddhist thinking, what’s interesting is how mimetic violence relates to the concept of “emptiness.” It is precisely because we lack any intrinsic, enduring form that, in the grip of dualism, we resort to imitation – mimesis. In contrast to our nagging sense of groundlessness, the Other appears fixed and solid. Secretly craving these qualities we seek to become “original” copies of the Other…which can only happen if the Other is eliminated in the process. We find the Oedipal relationship, in which the son seeks to copy and replace the father, so revealing, not because it is special, but because the tangled dynamic of mimesis becomes clearer when lit up by the primal energies of close family bonds.

Paradoxically, aggressive acts temporarily seem to deliver the solidity longed for by the egoic self, and this makes violence as contagious as small pox. Imagine me striking someone you love and feel how definite you become, how liberated from free-floating anxiety. The anger that runs through you is an entirely negative experience perhaps, but you are certainly free from feelings of “lack” or self-doubt. In the grip of anger we truly do become mirror images, replicas, of each other, and our public world becomes a nightmarish echo chamber of reciprocal violence. The mechanism of sacrifice ends the Hobbesian “war of all against all” as the violence is directed at the scapegoat. By common agreement the blood feud is buried with the victim, who is then worshiped as a god, becoming the lynch pin of all culture and myth. But the peace that descends is only temporary, and the seeds of mimetic violence will sprout again.

Certainly, anyone who has spent time working in the dramatic arts recognizes the significance of mimesis and the plasticity of the self, and all tragic dramas are rooted in sacrificial rites. But in Girard’s view social hierarchy in general arises out of the initial, hidden sacrifice. Even the competitive mimesis of the market economy – in which every new product is instantly cloned – is a distant, sublimated echo of the mimetic violence percolating underneath. And whenever we come to resemble each other too closely – when income inequality levels out, for example – the old atavistic anxieties begin to stir. Opponents of the death penalty, for example, miss how the leveling of incomes during the 1970s caused alarm among the defenders of social hierarchy. As recent governors of Texas seem to understand, erroneous executions are to be secretly celebrated; the more innocent the victim the more the execution will function like an actual sacrifice, buttressing the forces of social hierarchy.

There’s much more. The essential narrative of the Old Testament, according to Girard, is the story of the scapegoat mechanism held in abeyance. Abraham comes close to sacrificing Isaac…but then holds back. Joseph’s brothers’ turn him into a scapegoat…but he survives. With Jesus, however, we arrive at the return of the scapegoat mechanism in classic form. In Girard’s view the final lament of Jesus was that with his own sacrifice our bond with violence would only be buried, not broken. The aggression remained, sublimated in the various forms of culture, ready to continue its destructive magic out of view. Seen in this way, the idea that a second reckoning would surely arrive was more the product of clear thinking than prophecy. To survive, Girard suggests, the species must finally and completely shed its bond with violence – both greed and aggression – in its direct and in its sublimated forms.

While Girard may be extravagant in the claims he makes for his ideas, it’s hard to see where he really goes wrong. One reason the issue of mimetic violence is so hard to illuminate is that those who come to understand it directly, like Malik in A Prophet, are rendered mute by what they have experienced. The murderer exists apart, on the other side of language. Whether you define their difference as a form of spiritual insight or as a moral disfigurement, they speak in riddles or remain silent. From Macbeth on the battlements to Raskolnikov on the crowded streets of St. Petersburg, the killer is drawn into the heart of things to his ultimate peril. The genius of A Prophet is how it shows this dynamic operating in a vehicle as unlikely as Malik, an everyman who seems empowered solely by his bond with the would-be lover he murders.

Depictions of violence in art beg the question: what cherished self images are we willing to forgo in order to lessen the actual suffering we are causing? No doubt we would prefer to forget our own shadow material, which today gets played out, not in primal blood feuds, but in gushers of black oil flooding the waters of the Gulf. From a Buddhist perspective, our ultimate opponent is not aggression or greed but ignorance. Artists examine human violence in order to illuminate the Darwinian habits that also explain our current success as a species. But the violence cultivated by the imperatives of natural selection is now a limiting factor when it comes to our continued survival. Evolution itself now calls on us to break our hidden bonds with violence. A first step, perhaps, is to draw them into the light and look at them with an unflinching eye.


  1. john steppling says:

    well, a fascinating film to discuss. I would say right at the top that I consider it a masterpiece (whatever that might mean) and one of the finest works of the last twenty years to be sure.

    I do think however its tricky to talk about. I would only add to your comments my feeling that what is operating underneath the politicized surface of this film (political in its depiction of French prisons vis a vis Arab prisoners) is a religious narrative that simultaneously explores the issues of what holiness and grace might be — and in that way explores and critiques the senses in which topics of redemption and compassion, and most importantly, ‘the holy’ have been handed down to us.

    See, its tricky to talk about and im already getting tangled up in syntax and grammar. But Malik is less a criminal mastermind, a fast learner, than he is a holy man — by default, and as a by product of his naivete. Maybe , rather, not naivete as innocence — at least in his broadest definitions and implications. But it also addresses the Oedipal……….and the sins of the father, even if surrogate. The Corsican crime boss, Cesar, looms over the film as a reminder of our bodily chains……..and of our egos. Of our narcissism and our pride. The ghost or spirit of the murdered man appears over and over…once in bed with malik and once spinning in a sufi/dervish trance of ecstasy. What is one to make of that, exactly? it resonates, however, in ways that suggest that it is touching upon something significant in how forgiveness and salvation operate…………and how compassion forms, though perhaps only in a dialectical landscape which includes its darker shadow formation (i.e. violence). Add to this a sexual component………..and the homo-erotic trim that surrounds the mise en scene of Audiard’s film, and we arrive at why this film is hard to analyse and speaks to its complexity.

    Another add, the referance to bosnia and rwanda is, to my mind, unfortunate without supplying of context. (for example this very fine recent piece by ed herman http://www.monthlyreview.org/100501herman-peterson.php ). Speaking of echo chambers………i believe the vast disinformation that surrounds the break up of the former Yugoslavia and the demonizing of Serbs………and here the rewriting of history regarding Rwanda, this is the clearest example of Shakespearean tragedy i think we might find. The lies of empire……..and so i would add israeli aggression against Palestinians……….most recently the grotesque attack on the aid flotilla. This is all part of what makes this film so amazing. For within this story lurk the impulses and irrationality of the modern soul. The complexity of Shakespeare is close to what Audiard has achieved. The film , poetically, is seamless. The two trips Malik takes away from prison….on 24 hour passes, are as good as film gets……….they are films within films in a sense…………and the burden of carrying the man from the basement, after a money drop, is staggering. (He’s not heavy, he’s my…..etc) and then the car hitting the deer. Pure film poetry.

    And the narrative unfolds , most importantly, within a carefully observed awareness of class and post colonial legacies. This is a landscape as barren as the ancient near east. As the birthplace of christianity (as my son Lex observed). It is a Biblical film…..to follow Auerbach…..old testament and new. I thought of pasolini when i saw it, and of Fassbinder. And of Dryer. We are all students on our path……and teachers,too, knowing of course that on one level there is nothing to teach, and in that way this film would have been loved by Walter Benjamin — it is an expression of the far reaches of Enlightenment values…..now dusty and worn and wearing thin……….yet………….always to be reckoned with.

    This has been a run of great articles by you, Guy……….all of great depth and worth discussion. One doesnt get that much these days, so thanks

  2. CR. Dickens says:

    Fundamentalism and Violence

    Hand in hand these two stroll through our lives wreaking havoc and giving us false hope for retribution for the infidel. I agree that the basis of violence is often masked by needs but when seen in the light of reason and moderation the rationalizations fold and become like dead leaves underfoot. They once had purpose; vibrant and alive, now dead in the light of reality and conscience; all being excellent for mulch.

    There is no one more dangerous than someone with passionately strong beliefs. It is a simple rationalization to lose our inner animal on mankind to meet out punishment with god to blame. I imagine that I am the sword of the Almighty and set about the task judging and executing my orders from above. Or maybe I take matters into my own hands, heading out with misinformation liberally interpreted by a self serving cleric with an ax ready for grinding.

    Moderation is a key to non-violent behavior and the realization that we are the sum or our parts and prone to occasional malfunction. The Almighty makes a very convenient base of operations from which to strike and recoil with impunity. Explaining violence as this article does, opens the book for discussion on the why and wherefore’s and pointing out again that the Emperor has no cloths.

  3. Lex Steppling says:

    This film is one of the most compassionate works I have ever seen. To experience times and places of complete mistrust and desperation is often to also experience sensitivity in a way that might be impossible to articulate (how do we talk about how we feel during and after an earthquake, or a shooting?).

    Malik possesses a purity that challenges all of the ancient, barbaric codes, and later, the contemporary barbaric codes (summed up by the amazing shot of the shoe on display) as he simply survives, loves, hates, and learns. I say simply, though Malik himself is not a simple man.

    The Cohen brothers re tell holy tales with camp and irony, texture, and scent. Audiard tells this holy tale with actual spiritual depth, and at this point I realize that it is not a re-telling at all, rather, it’s holiness found through the same intuitive process that lead to great mythology of the past. A Prophet may be the first great myth of our time.

    It’s interesting that a few people I know really struggled with the violence, people whom I begged to go and see this film. I never thought, for a second to warn them, for I found this film not grotesque in the least, and in fact uplifting. The nightly news, or the average TV commercial is far more violent and disturbing.

    Great work Mr. Zimmerman.

  4. Cheryl Slean says:

    Hey, haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t b/c my disinterest in the gangster genre is profound, but I did appreciate your articulate inquiry into violence and art.

    This sentence gave me pause: “Moreover, our staggering gift for violence is perhaps our defining feature as a species, so it’s hard to know what is being served by avoiding its representation in art.”

    Thank god, I believe whole-heartedly that our defining feature as a species is not violence, but consciousness, ie, the capacity for awareness. Plenty of critters are practicing violence to eat or mate or whatever (completely unconsciously). Violence in humans, as you say, is an expression of ignorance, and consciousness/awareness, and the native human compassion awareness unlocks, is the antidote to that ill. As you say, when people finally see how meaningless their attachment to self-image(s) really is, thoughts of committing violence over it become the height of absurdity, and naturally disappear.

  5. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Well, you notice I took care to say “perhaps.” I’m being polemical, in part. But I also think we truly are more violent than any other species of higher animal. The evidence for this would seem to me overwhelming, given our history and the current state of things. It is perhaps that we are that much closer to breaking through to truly non-dual experience, and the energy of that makes us a little crazy.

    Compassion is a natural byproduct of non-separation, so I would agree with you about the role of ignorance. But the issue is more intractable than you indicate, in my view, because so much of our economic and social lives rest on a foundation of violence – sublimated and not – reaching back through time. I’m suggesting that the full extent of that “dark matter” needs to be brought into the light of awareness before it will release its powerful grip on us. A few people finding peace here or there is a good thing, no question, but it doesn’t ultimately change the dangerous trajectory we are on.

  6. john steppling says:

    Its very frustrating that Cheryl sees this movie as a gangster movie. First, because its not, and second because even if it were, there are gangster movies and then there are gangster movies. That said, its not at all a gangster movie. And to dismiss or decide not to see something because its violent is to not understand in a rather drastic way that violence and love are dialectical ideas………and since humans invented a Hiroshima, i
    d say the idea that we are violent is rather hard to refute.

    But again, this film is about compassion and about holiness. That the holy man emerges from a his role as a killer and in a horrid and violent prison, speaks to the dialectical nature of these realities. My problem with this review, which i think is excellent, is that the film is really about love……about compassion and about redemption. IF you’ve seen melville’s masterpiece Army of Shadows, one can say much the same thing. The non dialectical view as expressed in film would lead us to the too sweet and cloying (and petit bourgeoisie) work of junk like american beauty, or the ‘merely beautiful’ as adorno put it.

    pasolini, Brecht, Bergman, Fassbinder, all dealt with violence and class and the contradictions thereof. One should never avoid things just because they seem “”unpleasant””.

  7. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Well, it’s interesting to pursue the film and because it’s a work of art we’ll never reduce it to some set of themes or whatever. I understand what you mean about it being about love. Those wonderful scene with the gypsy pot dealer makes me think of this and that actor was one of my favorite things. Justice is a concern in the film also. Your comments made me realize that a prison is wonderful terrain for dramatic writing because engagement is a given, detachment not an option. It’s the opposite of the monastery in that regard. I was aware writing about A Prophet that the Girard angle would only take me so far into illuminating it…but that there is something hard edged about the film too, clearly – a depiction of power being invested in a man through his experience of violence. Shakespearean, as I mentioned, thinking about Richard 3 or Macbeth or Julius Ceasar. But there’s so much there. Those marvelous dream sequences. The way he becomes prophetic. Writing this makes me want to see it again.

  8. Cheryl Slean says:

    I guess the first line of my post– written in haste and in shorthand– came off as reductive and dismissive of a film I admittedly haven’t seen. Apologies for that; the fact is I was more interested in Guy’s analysis of the film than I am in watching the film itself… not because I wish to avoid the unpleasant; in fact it seems to me essential to any sort of understanding of what it means to be human that one become aware of the powerful sway that pleasant and unpleasant experience has in the mind — and perhaps in this investigation one might catch a glimpse of the roots of violent thought, and thence behavior. I would like to see this movie if it tries to go beyond a dialectic of dualistic ideas and point toward a notion of transcendence, which John seems to imply with his statement that the film is about compassion, love and redemption. I understand that narrative enactments of those emotions must be earned by something; descent into darkness, facing one’s demons, etc. being one approach. But it seems to me there is an inordinate attention paid in Western art to the extreme versions of the “walking-through-darkness” stories, and I find that a little tiresome– thus my flip comment about gangsters. My personal preference I suppose is to see the more mundane versions of that journey; and I don’t need to defend that preference to anyone; except to say that I’ve seen enough of the other to last a lifetime. –Anyway, I would welcome a discussion here or elsewhere of the possibility of an art of transcendence; because it seems to me that much art is satisfied with taking merely the first step of unmasking/enacting human ignorance (in whatever form it takes); and while catharsis through identification is what we might term a good story, it is not, fortunately, the end of the story of life. Perhaps this film tries to step beyond the mere enactment of conflict to the opening that occurs upon insight into the NATURE of conflict; and that would interest me greatly. I mean, that kind of moment, or arc, or whatever, is hard to do well (Guy’s comment about the monastery applies), and I haven’t quite figured out how to do it.
    Finally, I wasn’t trying to imply that man is not violent, that would be ridiculous; rather that our violent tendencies are not our uniquely defining feature. Guy makes the case for the excess of our violence being unique among species, and I will, unhappily, accede to that. I agree with Guy that the problem is endemic and difficult, but if I thought it was intractable, I would have given up my own spiritual practice long ago. If there’s hope for me, with this closed heart being slowly opened through the practice of awareness, there is hope for everyone. There’s really no point in complaining about how hard or unlikely it is to change people (though it’s funny, the Buddha complained about that all the time); the fact is, it is possible, and if you truly know this, from your own unshakeable insight, there is no other choice but to lead by example. I love what Guy says about the energy of our impending awakening as a species making us batty; I don’t know about that; but I do know that once the light of understanding, as he says, is shed on “the dark matter,” it turns out to be full of hot air. Violence stems from an essentially empty balloon of incorrect assumptions; and if this film or any artwork attempts to puncture that balloon, I will run not walk to my nearest art house.

  9. Cheryl Slean says:

    oh jeez and now after all this discussion I’ll have to go out and see it…

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