Unrelentingly intense from start to finish, Jacques Audiard's bold examination of the modern-day French prison system hinges on its central character's transformation from an ignorant submissive criminal into an intelligent dominant force. For much of the story impressive newcomer Tahar Rahim plays petty Arab criminal Malik El Djebena with such thin-skinned transparency that it's agonizing to watch. Malik embarks on a six-year prison sentence for an unspecified crime in a penitentiary where its kill-or-be-killed philosophy is foisted upon him by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the ruthless leader of the jail's Corsican mafia population. Cesar assigns Malik to murder a fellow prisoner named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Once the terrible deed is done Malik is haunted by Reyeb's ghost, but enjoys the protection of Cesar's gang and becomes part of the group as Cesar's personal assistant. Malik enters into a twisted kind of apprenticeship with Cesar who viciously punishes him as a way of developing his character. On his own, Malik learns to read and to speak the languages of the multi-ethnic nationalities around him--a skill that eventually earns him the privilege of running day errands outside the jail for Cesar. As a French contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, "A Prophet" is a most worthy contender.
Rated R. 149 mins. (A) (Five Stars)