An Academy Award nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film, the French import A Prophet brings some necessary new life to that favored offshoot of the crime genre, the prison flick, before finally -- and somewhat regrettably -- settling down into a familiar groove. For the most part, though, this tough-minded tale from director Jacques Audiard maintains its distinctive edge, with a couple of scenes as expertly staged as any to have seared the screen in recent months.
Tahar Rahim delivers a quietly compelling performance as Malik El Djebena, a young French Arab who's sentenced to six years in prison for a run-in with cops (the reason for his incarceration is deliberately never made clear). The opposite of an amoral opportunist like Scarface's Tony Montana, Malik is a quiet kid who only wants to serve his six years with his head down and his hands kept clean. Good luck with that. Instead, he's immediately approached by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and his Corsican gang; they inform him that either he murders a fellow inmate who's about to squeal in court, or they murder him.
In order to survive, Malik has no choice but to carry out the hit, yet although he's then under the protection of the Corsicans, they dislike him because of his Arab blood and treat him poorly. For their part, the Muslims view him with equal disdain. But Malik proves to be more resourceful than anyone realizes: He learns how to read and write, eventually moving on to economics classes; he's believed to be such an upstanding inmate that he's given one-day leaves from the jail; and he becomes a major player in the drug trade. And yet, despite his ascendancy, he's still under the thumb of Cesar.
Even taking into account his advanced age and short stature, Cesar is a towering figure, and Arestrup plays him with a scary steeliness that makes it easy to believe he could rule a prison yard. And as long as the film centers on the power plays between the various jailhouse factions, or the manner in which Malik struggles with his own morality before realizing what needs to happen for him to survive the entire six-year stretch, A Prophet is a gripping drama that neither condemns nor coronates its leading character. It's only when the action moves outside the prison walls (during Malik's furloughs) that the movie loses much of its propulsive power, with the various criminal activities (drug wars, double-crosses and the like) appearing all too rote and routine. Nor do Audiard's flashes of surrealism add anything to what is otherwise straightforward storytelling -- I especially could have done without the ghost of Malik's first victim popping up (albeit just in the youth's mind) for periodic visits.
Fortunately, Audiard and his co-writers always have one more surprise up their sleeves. This audience courtesy extends through the end credits, as this gritty, violent picture wraps up with perhaps the dreamiest, most peaceful rendition of "Mack the Knife" (Jimmie Dale Gilmore's version) ever recorded.