Most prison movies dredge up drama from the horrific institutionalized brutality behind bars, and while Jacques Audiard's crime drama A Prophet never shies away from the cruelty of an inmate's life, it focuses on much more than just that.
The film stars Tahar Rahim as Malik, a 19-year-old Arab just beginning a six-year stretch in a French prison. He is without friends on the inside, and quickly comes under the thumb of leonine Corsican tough-guy César (Niels Arestrup), who orders Malik to kill a fellow inmate or be killed himself. After completing the task, Malik is haunted by visions of the man he murdered, but he also sets about taking classes in order to educate himself. As his complicated relationship with César evolves, the older man starts trusting Malik with more and more dangerous missions, including delivering information and money to people on the outside after Malik earns the right to take day trips away from the jail. All the while, Malik begins laying down the criminal network he will need to survive once he leaves the joint.
What elevates A Prophet above most other prison films are its structure and its protagonist. The movie is paced like a novel, with chapters that slowly build tension, rather than a series of events that hurtle toward a climactic prison break or riot. This is first and foremost a character study, and Malik -- shunned by fellow Arabs for being with the Corsicans, but never earning the respect of the Corsicans because he's Arab -- is a character worth studying. He's smart, though not well-educated; capable of violence; interested in sex but not love when it comes to women; and capable of supreme loyalty and self-sacrifice for men who have shown him the same.
There are religious elements to the story that might not translate to non-Arab viewers, but that hardly gets in the way of the film's powerful narrative grasp. As Malik learns to negotiate the complicated series of payoffs and favors he must perform to keep various factions within the prison from harming him, we get an understanding of why, for this character, rehabilitation doesn't exactly mean leaving a criminal life behind. He's a survivor, and we see how he learns to be a better criminal while arguably becoming a better man at the same time.
Malik changes substantially during his time in lockup, and Tahar Rahim signals those changes in very physical ways that range from his posture to his stride to the hardening of his facial features. He's matched well by Arestrup -- who comes off like a Corsican Ray Winstone. He's fearsome, forceful, and seemingly unstoppable -- the kind of bad guy who makes you root for Malik even when our hero still shows signs of being someone we ourselves would fear. And it is Rahim's spectacular and remarkably unshowy performance that keeps us riveted to this compelling and unflinching look at how prison can change someone.