This one could also have been called An Education, and if it were its title would have resonated with somewhat more bracing immediacy than its respectable yet less relevant fellow Oscar contender. A Prophet is a prison movie, and as such is inherently concerned with the acquisition of knowledge, codes, and hierarchies. 19-year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) gets six years for assaulting an officer. An Arab in France with no family or resources, he begins his sentence with little more than the raggedy clothes on his back, a capacity for brawling, and a lot of fear, anger, and confusion. He fits in neither with the religiously observant Muslims nor the Arab-hating Corsicans, but it's the Corsicans who find use for him. He’ll quickly learn through a series of fumbling trails-by-fire to seduce, murder, take shit from his oppressors, and nurture secret plans for his own advancement. Just as importantly, he also learns to read, encouraged by the first man he kills, a fellow Arab named Rayib, who comes to haunt Malik’s waking dreams.
So part of this ambitious crime drama’s icy thrills come from our privileged ability to watch and listen while Malik is administers tough lessons. We aren’t necessarily encouraged to sympathize with Malik, and we certainly aren’t encouraged to pity him or shrug off his actions. Rahim gives a marvelous performance, a punk kid with a wispy moustache, alternately terrified and cocksure, stupidly reckless and suddenly wised-up, but he’s not what we typically call a magnetic presence, neither ingratiating nor glamorous nor obviously charismatic. What makes Rahim’s Malik so riveting is the honesty of the actor’s work and the complexity of character’s plight, which is thorny enough on a political, racial or religious level, yet finally grips us on a more basic, human one. The movie’s title is in fact the right one, mysterious in the best way, alluding perhaps to some trace of second-sight that might keep Malik alive, as well as to some vague sense that somewhere some unseen hand has already decided our fate for us.
A Prophet was directed by Jacques Audiard, whose previous work includes The Beat My Heart Skipped, an imaginative remake of James Toback’s cult film Fingers, and Read My Lips, a superb neo-Hitchcockian thriller. He wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, based on an original script by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, and the result feels busy yet seamless. The movie pounces sometimes like a vicious feline, staying close to its troubled protagonist, at others it comes to a halt to allow us to absorb the gravity of its violence, which is in some strange way a portrait of a new Europe.