Strip away the subtitles, the French-prison setting and the Muslim-messianic title, and A Prophet still would be the grittiest prison thriller in years. Add those ingredients, and its familiar plot of "prisoner learns the ropes and comes to rule his roost" becomes a parable for life, crime and racism in modern France.
Malik (Tahar Rahim) is 19 when he's tossed behind bars, a kid who punched a cop and drew a six-year sentence. He's assaulted on his first trip to "the yard," bullied at every turn by the racist Corsican thugs who run the place. The warden and guards are helpless, not that they care what happens to another "dirty Arab."
Malik is "not religious," so he's segregated from the Muslim cell block. He's locked up with the Corsicans and their grizzled mob boss, Cesar (Niels Arestrup of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
They have only contempt for Malik, but they have a use for him. He is blackmailed into killing a new Muslim inmate who is to testify against a Corsican. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard tips us to the grim detail to come, as Malik is trained to lure the gay Muslim (Hichem Yacoubi) into a fatal trap.
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The horrific slaying (a razor blade, a small cell) doesn't make Malik a "made man." But he becomes more and more useful to the Corsicans. We see his steady climb up the prison pecking order, his cold-blooded calculations, his tallying of the humiliations at the hands of the Corsicans. And we watch his visions of the murdered man, trying to give him faith or at least make him more loyal to his "own kind."
A Prophet takes us into the French underworld that Malik masters, bluffing his way through every dicey situation, and Rahim lets us see the wheels turning behind Malik's eyes — calculating the worst thing that can happen: a beating here, a little time in solitary there. We see his cunning, and his sense of tribe, growing with each move.
With colorful supporting players and vivid re-creations of prison life, Audiard underscores each chapter in Malik's education in the familiar tale of a new underclass displacing an older one as criminal kingpins. This is the French equivalent of Gangs of New York or any of a dozen other American mob pictures.
Audiard tells a familiar story with verve, violence and tempo; a movie that stands with the best prison thrillers from any country; vividly illustrating the connection between prison and the violent, radical form of Islam that keeps much of Europe on edge.