Jacques Audiard's award-winning French-language prison drama "A Prophet" succeeds at everything it wants to be -- and it wants to be a lot.
Part "Shawshank Redemption," part "Godfather, Part 2," the story of a young Arab making the most of his six years in a French jail is a refreshingly satisfying gangster movie on one level and, on another, an astute cultural study of modern-day Europe.
The title suggests a film with strong religious undertones, but there is little salvation here. Corruption and coercion are the canon; the baptisms are in blood.
And yet . . . the film rises above the formulaic with a core of unexpected morality -- embodied by the young convict Malik (brought to life with vivid intensity by Tahar Rahim), who lands in prison for some small offense. Illiterate and naive, he becomes an easy target for bullying until he meets the two men who will rescue him: One, the Corsican crime boss (Niels Arestrup) who runs the prison; the other, Rajeb, the first man Malik kills.
Murder does not come naturally to him, and Malik -- handpicked by the Corsican for the job -- tries to get out of it. (For one thing, he has almost comic difficulty in learning how to conceal a razor blade in his cheek.) Unfortunately, for Malik this is a do-or-die proposition.
Before the terrified young inmate slashes his victim's jugular, though, Rajeb treats him with more humanity than Malik has ever known. Unaware of Malik's mission, Rajeb tells him to make use of the prison school, to leave this place smarter than when he came in, not to let the walls imprison his mind.
Malik takes the words to heart, becoming a diligent student of language, economics and -- most of all -- human nature. He puts that knowledge to good use, just as director Audiard makes good use of the fast 2 1/2 -hour running time. The film ticks off Malik's prison years as a camera on a timer can tick off the growth of a flower, from when it first emerges from the dirt to a fully opened blossom. Only in Malik's case, he blossoms into a very savvy criminal mastermind in his own right.
Occasional odd premonitions and his regular conversations with the dead Rajeb make Malik the prophet of the title; the visionary here, though, is Jacques Audiard. The division in prison between the Corsican mob and Muslim inmates plays out without being spelled out; Malik's ventures into the "real" world include small, telling touches like his opening his mouth wide for an airport patdown -- a regular part of prison life. We are pulled into his world with such intimacy you can almost feel it.
"A Prophet" was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award this year, and won the Grand Prix at Cannes and the BAFTA (the British Oscars) for best foreign film, along with winning best film, best actor and best director prizes at France's Cesar awards.
It is mostly in French, with subtitles, and well deserves its R-rating.
A PROPHET (UN PROPHETE)
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi
DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard
RUNNING TIME: 149 minutes
RATING: R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material. In French with English subtitles.
THE LOWDOWN: An illiterate French-Arab teen learns new skills while struggling to survive in prison.