Tahar Rahim & Niels Arestrup in the movie A Prophet

The crime sagas that end up ensnaring the public imagination often do so by delivering their thrills with a crafty sort of hypocrisy, casting the hero in a mold unnerving enough to keep the viewer on edge, but heroic (or attractively anti-heroic) enough to develop a rooting interest.

Such is the case with "A Prophet," a violent and gripping French film trafficking in both gangster mythology and the prison picture.

It comes from Jacques Audiard, who has won many awards ("A Prophet" is one of this year's foreign-language Oscar nominees) in France and beyond for what Audiard himself has described as "an anti-'Scarface.'"

Well ... sort of. The French-Algerian played by Tahar Rahim learns by stealth and observance, while the machine-gunning loons made indelible by Paul Muni and then indelibly cheesy by Al Pacino were powder kegs, exploding on cue.

"A Prophet" pushes its protagonist into circumstances he did not choose but in which he watches and learns and kills and eventually becomes all he can be, albeit criminally.

Certainly Muslims living in France have embraced the movie and Malik, played by Rahim.

Malik is barely out of his teens when he's imprisoned for a six-year sentence for assaulting a police officer. The prison culture is brutally divided between the Muslims and the Corsicans. One man essentially runs the joint from the inside: Cesar, the proud, vicious old lion in winter, who quickly takes Malik under his wing and informs him he must kill a fellow prisoner or else be killed himself. Cesar is played by the superb Niels Arestrup, who played the shady real estate scion in Audiard's previous film, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped."

Malik shuttles between two worlds and his fluid sense of identity works in his favor. He runs errands for Cesar during his one-day furloughs and runs drugs for himself, with the help of a fellow Muslim con (Adel Bencherif).

Eventually, Malik's business interests collide and something has to give. "A Prophet" leads to a simple, stark prison yard encounter that is nonverbal, fleeting and fantastically effective.

Audiard keeps it hurtling forward, though he's not interested in the mournful realism that marked a film such as "Gomorrah." The man Malik kills early on hangs around the picture as a spiritual guidance counselor. Here and there supporting characters are introduced via freeze frame and a huge on-screen label.

These sometimes feel like indulgences.

Yet it's precisely this mixture of high- and low-minded crime entertainment that makes "A Prophet" so bracing.


MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material).

Running time: 2:29.

Cast: Tahar Rahim (Malik); Niels Arestrup (Cesar Luciani); Adel Bencherif (Ryad); Hichem Yacoubi (Reyeb).

Credits: Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Thomas Bidegain and Audiard. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In French with English subtitles.

A Prophet Movie Review - Tahar Rahim & Niels Arestrup