“A Prophet” strikes home like a shiv in the ribs.
French director Jacques Audiard’s grim, disturbing prison picture slices through gangster cliches to hit raw nerve. It reverberates with the ring of truth, whether it’s focusing on the racial politics of the exercise yard, the lockup economy where a life is worth a carton of cigarettes, or the strong, steady undertow of intimidation that can turn a callow petty criminal into a remorseless killer.
Tahar Rahim plays Malik, an unformed 19-year-old French Arab starting a six-year prison sentence. He seems scarcely old enough for adult detention, humiliated by the strip-search intake process, intimidated by the hard older convicts.
Malik’s vulnerability catches the hawklike eye of Cesar (Niels Arestrup, chilling) a Corsican mob don who controls the corrupt guards like marionettes.
Cesar recruits the frightened newcomer to murder a snitch. The cruel old man, hollowed out from loneliness, begins to look on Malik as his subhuman pet.
The young Muslim bides his time, learning to read and secretly studying the Corsican language. Whether he will use his new skills to serve his boss or to undermine him is a question Audiard does not rush to answer.
The film’s title is never explicitly addressed, but Malik rises in influence after moving through a number of spiritually symbolic trials.
He’s repeatedly shot with arms outstretched as if awaiting crucifixion as the guards pat him down. He spends 40 days and 40 nights in solitary confinement. He becomes a leader of his people, guiding them to power, if not freedom.
Outside the prison walls, he sees a glimpse of personal paradise, and we must guess whether he will reform to earn it or take it by criminal force.
The film pulls no punches where brutality is concerned. Awful as these murders are, they build to a spectacular massacre that is somehow hideously exhilarating.
Arestrup, with his unwavering dead stare, gives a powder-keg performance as the malicious Corsican boss.
But the film belongs to Rahim as Malik. His guarded performance grows in mystery and cool reserve scene by scene.
The film doesn’t invite us to condone his actions, and Rahim doesn’t milk our sympathy. “A Prophet” credits the audience with enough intelligence to realize that this character is a sociopath.
Malik himself seems to know this, too. A pessimistic coda hints that even when such a man triumphs, he’s trapped by his crimes.