Most prison movies are about escape or survival. A Prophet (Un Prophete), director Jacques Audiard's Oscar-nominated drama, is about the creation of a consciousness. This one, too, could have been called An Education. When Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old of Arab and Corsican descent, enters a French prison to begin serving a six-year sentence, you fear he won't last a week (he is beaten and robbed of his sneakers within a day).
For the next two and a half hours, A Prophet lays out, in scrupulous detail, Malik's evolution into a cunning, resourceful criminal whose reach extends far beyond the prison walls. His transformation is heroic, almost inspirational. Audiard isn't glorifying crime: He's celebrating self-awareness and responsibility. The setting just happens to be horrific.
Soon after arriving, Malik is drafted by Cesar Luchiani (the tremendous Niels Arestrup), the wizened old Corsican gangster whose tribe rules the prison. Cesar offers the young man a haven within the unforgiving dungeon: To earn it, though, Malik must first murder an Arab inmate, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), using a razor blade concealed in his mouth. Malik tries everything he can to get out of his predicament; he even gets himself thrown into solitary confinement. But Cesar's power extends to the guards, too. There is no escape.
This is the first of several instances in which Malik, magnetically played by the gifted Rahim, must hurry up and make a decision. Audiard is intrigued by moments that end up defining us - the moments when we take a leap into the unknown, aware of the consequences our choices carry. Malik goes through with his assignment: He's clumsy at murder - he's not a killer - and the violence is hair-raising and obscene. (Cesar warns the kid not to get any blood on himself, but he winds up drenched anyway.)
The initiation buys Malik some reprieve from the perils of prison life, but it doesn't earn him much praise from Cesar and his crew, who start to grumble about the young man's Arab heritage. A Prophet delves into the prejudice and discrimination felt by Arabs within French society, but the characters' ethnicities are not the point. "The idea is to leave here a little smarter," Reyeb tells Malik moments before the teen kills him, and the young man takes the advice to heart. He learns to read. He learns to observe. He studies the cruel and unforgiving Cesar, whose cold eyes never miss a thing.
The plot of A Prophet grows increasingly tangled, with warring drug cartels and day leaves into Marseilles. But Malik's role within the greater dimensions of the story is always clear. As the years stretch on, and his experience grows, the actor seems to transform on the screen. There's more than a trace of Michael Corleone in this innocent, who must quickly learn to make his way in the only world that will have him.
A Prophet incorporates blasts of hip-hop, blocks of text, dream sequences and even a nerve-racking shoot out inside a car; the guns sound like cannons. But the film never succumbs to the pitfalls of the prison-movie genre, and there's something poetic about how Audiard, in the midst of all this violence, manages to make a punch to the stomach seem like the most violent act of all. By the time Mack the Knife plays over the end credits, Malik has lived up to the expectations established by the film's portentous title: In his shrewd, improbable soul, we can glimpse the future.
A Prophet (***1/2 out of ****) opens Friday, March 19 at the Regal South Beach in Miami and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale.