Genre specialist Jacques Audiard continues his fascination with the secret inner lives of Gaul’s criminal underworld in “A Prophet,” a tough, absorbingly intricate account of a young French-Arab thug’s improbable education behind bars. Applying his jangly aesthetic to a broader canvas than usual, Audiard navigates his protagonist through a grotty, at times overcrowded labyrinth of racially divided gang factions and roughly sketched-in crooks and cons. Though less pleasurably offbeat than the helmer’s well-received “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” this is solid, sinewy pulp fiction with strong arthouse prospects abroad and on local release Aug. 26.
Clocking in at an imposing 2½ hours, “A Prophet” is Audiard’s fifth and longest feature to date. This has less to do with the intrinsic interest of the central character — 19-year-old petty criminal Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), who’s been sentenced to six years in prison — than with the thick network of warring tribes he finds himself mired in and ultimately forced to master. It’s one of the understated ironies of Audiard’s script (co-written with Thomas Bidegain) that for Malik, crime doesn’t begin to pay until after he lands in the clink.
Pic breezes its way through the usual prison-movie conventions as Malik is strip-searched, roughed up and quickly enlightened about his place on the jailhouse food chain. In short order, he’s targeted by the leader of the prison’s Corsican gang, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”), who threatens Malik with death unless he murders a fellow Arab inmate, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi).
Audiard sustains tension best in these early scenes by emphasizing Malik’s physical nakedness and vulnerability. Though prone to his own flashes of temper, he’s mostly shy, inarticulate and on the defensive, his eyes shifting anxiously as he takes in his grim surroundings (a visual strategy approximated by the darting handheld camerawork of d.p. Stephane Fontaine and sharp, kinetic rhythms of Juliette Welfling’s editing).
Even after Malik completes his mission — in a sequence of queasy, unnerving brutality — and confirms himself as a jailbird to be reckoned with, he remains a loner and an outsider, accepted by neither his Corsican superiors (who call him a “dirty Arab”) nor the Muslim hoods who form the prison’s other dominant bloc. But even though he can barely read or write, Malik turns out to be a quick study in all the ways that count.
The lengthy remainder of the film spans several years and is devoted to Malik’s thriving career in and out of prison. Under Luciani’s orders, he manages to secure a few days’ leave at a time for good behavior, which he uses to deepen his criminal connections and bump off rivals, often working with his only real friend, ex-con Riad (Adel Bencherif).
A certain mechanical quality inevitably seeps in as the web of conflicting allegiances takes on a dizzying complexity; Malik comes to seem almost invincible, his upward trajectory circumscribed by the screenplay and the pic’s not especially subtle title (it could just as easily taken the name of Audiard’s 1996 feature, “A Self-Made Hero”). Offsetting these qualities are the tale’s headlong momentum, Audiard’s flair for pulse-pounding setpieces and the intensely physical lead performance of Rahim, who holds the screen in a role that tends more toward recessive, inward-looking moments than showy ones.
Other perfs are effective enough in mostly one-dimensional parts, with the singular exception of Arestrup’s chilling turn as a crime boss who will accept nothing less than Malik’s complete submission. While Audiard deploys a few modernist touches such as intertitles, slo-mo and iris shots, as well as a full-bodied score by Alexandre Desplat, an atmosphere of gritty realism predominates, borne out by Michel Barthelemy’s stark production design and the film’s matter-of-fact approach to the corruption of the prison authorities.