Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" traces the evolution of an illiterate French-Arab inmate who uses his time well in prison, learning to read and write, studying economics, picking up a new language.
Along the way, he applies his new skills and his native acumen to become a supreme crimelord in the making, running drugs, carrying out strategic hits, playing rival gangs off one another for his own benefit.
Malik El Djebena's not exactly a model prisoner, but his story is a great one. French director Audiard has crafted an epic, riveting drama of a young man with a destiny, a Darwinian survivor of the purest sort, an infinitely adaptable operator and opportunist.
"A Prophet" took the second-place prize at last May's Cannes Film Festival and rightly is giving the first-place winner -- "The White Ribbon" -- stiff competition for the foreign-language honor at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Audiard ("Read My Lips," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped") co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, the two constructing a tale that's rich, expansive and even rather universal despite the claustrophobic prison setting.
Malik (Tahar Rahim, in an exceptional performance) enters prison a scared, cowering dope, clueless about what he's in for. Though we learn little about his life before prison, we gather that he was just as clueless in the real world, an ignorant youth who would have remained a bit of societal flotsam on the outside.
Prison becomes his proving ground, and Malik's innate gifts -- an ear for language; an eye for business; a patient, industrious soul; the guts and heart to seize the moment -- help him profit as he learns to maneuver the cellblock hierarchy.
Through a gruesome jail slaying, Malik ingratiates himself with Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mob leader who's the main power among the inmates.
Cesar turns Malik into a servant, mascot and object of ridicule among the Corsican gang, their "dirty Arab" pet. But Malik spends his time watching and learning, both among the Corsicans and through prison classes, where he finds a mentor in Muslim inmate Ryad (Adel Bencherif).
As the years pass, Malik makes connections and forges alliances in and out of prison, his model behavior earning him periodic furloughs during which he handles assignments for the Corsicans and develops his own hashish trade.
Grim and unsavory as it sounds, "A Prophet" unfolds with relentless intensity, wicked humor and a fanciful spirit that puts it in a class apart from the usual dour prison drama.
Rahim manages to maintain a sense of Malik's innocence and simplicity even as the young man carries out savage acts.
The film's wry ending, with "Mack the Knife" as musical backdrop, almost marks the beginning of another movie -- certainly a new beginning for Malik, an unknown future brimming with possibilities, good and bad.
Audiard has talked about the prospects of a sequel to "A Prophet." With the foundation he has built here, it would be a welcome one.
"A Prophet," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material. Running time: 149 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.