As the French film A Prophet opens, the Arab youth Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) peers through the barriers of the French prison that separate him from the outside world. Only 19 years old and perhaps innocent of the crime of which he’s accused, Malik is an innocent suddenly swimming in a sea of wiser, mercenary adult men. He looks out at this new, claustrophobic world with a visible, animal-like fear, and his fellow inmates quickly sniff out his vulnerability.

On the prison yard where inmates clump into groups, the solitary Malik is targeted for victimization. He’s friendless and therefore unprotected. He has no money for bribes or the small pleasures of cigarettes, coffee, and pornography that make prison life pass more quickly. But Malik finds a dark savior.

In the prison economy, the elderly Corsican crime boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) is Malik’s antithesis. César is a man in utter control of this universe, who holds everyone from the prison guards to his cadre of macho, clannish Corsicans in his yoke. César sees Malik’s isolation and senses an opportunity. An Arab, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) has entered the prison ranks, and César makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse: If he uses his camaraderie with Reyeb to first seduce and then kill the man, he will continue to live.

A Prophet‘s director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for his feature, does everything he can to get us deep into the sensations of this place and to position us within Malik’s head as he contemplates, first, his profound loneliness within the prison, and then his first murder.

Crime pictures often make killing and sadism feel utterly natural and reflexive, like the normal order of things. But Audiard has a sensibility more in keeping with new French cinema auteurs like Gaspar Noe or Richard Price’s moral, probing crime novels. Brutality is delivered without romance or Tarantinoesque thrill value. Realism is A Prophet‘s saving grace, the thing that separates it from films that exploit and glamorize the wise-guy demimonde. During weaker moments, A Prophet‘s harsh realism collides with the stylish, brutal machismo we’ve seen in other mob dramas from Scorsese’s Goodfellas to The Sopranos. Key characters are introduced with their names spelled out in bold type beneath them. Throbbing hip-hop blasts as Malik enters the ranks of the prison’s “made” men.

But for the most part, A Prophet‘s distinction is its refusal to play to convention. The film shows Malik’s horror at taking another man’s life and his efforts to avoid it. After the murder, Malik’s guilt is apparent: Reyeb haunts him for years to come, appearing in his bed, in his cell, the smoke from his cigarette seeping out of the razor wound Malik left in his neck.

Reyeb’s murder is just one indication of Malik’s divided consciousness. Following the hit, Malik falls under César’s special protection, but he dwells in a shadow space. The Corsicans despise the Arab prisoners and treat Malik like a servant. He makes coffee and sweeps floors and does any job that César demands. There is a security in his new role, but a fresh terror too, of being made into another man’s slave.

Audiard’s absorbing film marks Malik’s dark education from an inexperienced, frightened kid into an older and wiser man able to exploit the system and slowly work himself out from under the thumb of the merciless, untrustworthy crime boss César. A Prophet is the darkest kind of Bildungsroman. In this coming-of-age story, wisdom and maturity come as Malik learns to commit murder, deal drugs, and take revenge on his enemies. Amazingly, Audiard shows this devolution without either glorifying or abhorring Malik.

Malik remains frightfully innocent and naive. He is thrilled on a day’s leave from prison, to ride in an airplane, and, back in his prison cell, he is childishly happy to watch a James Bond DVD. At times Malik suggests he might make a better life for himself: He learns to read in the prison school and takes classes, as if preparing for some legitimate work outside the prison’s walls. But his limitations are apparent. Prison makes crime his destiny.

A Prophet is of the immersion school of cinema, intent on getting us deep into the sensations of this place and Malik’s entrapment in the concrete warren of the prison with its filthy cinder block walls and absence of light. By the end of the film, we feel we know Malik and his Darwinian urge to survive, without condoning or celebrating what he has done. He is without choice, a man with few options grappling with the slow process of his own dehumanization.

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